NEW PAPER: COVID-19 and pastoralism: Reflections from three continents

Written by Giulia Simula, Tsering Bum, Domenica Farinella, Natasha Maru, Tahira Shariff Mohamed, Masresha Taye and Palden Tsering

A new article written by the PASTRES team and published in the ‘Grassroots Voices’ section of The Journal of Peasant Studies (available free access and in green open access here) explores how COVID-19 disease control measures have affected pastoralists, with cases from three continents. In response to the lockdown measures, the paper examines what innovations have emerged to secure livelihoods, through new forms of social solidarity and ‘moral economy’. The cases show how impacts and responses have been differentiated by class, age, wealth and ethnicity, and explore the implications for socio-economic processes and political change in pastoral settings.

Researching in the pandemic across diverse settings

Through the voices of pastoralists, the paper focuses on five very diverse cases from Africa (Isiolo in northern Kenya, Borana in southern Ethiopia), Asia (Amdo Tibet in China; Kacchch in Gujarat, India) and Europe (Sardinia in Italy).

From February 2020 onwards, as researchers who take part in the PASTRES research programme and are based in these countries, we started to interview pastoralists about the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. The documentation was informal, based on interviews and complemented by the sharing of photos through a cross-country photovoice project. As lockdowns were imposed, we were often separated from their field sites, but kept in touch by phone, WhatsApp and other means.

How has the pandemic restructured agrarian relations?

In all sites the pandemic, particularly through the imposition of disease control measures, the pandemic has had far-reaching effects on pastoral livelihoods and agrarian relations. Mobility – or immobility – is a theme that threads through all of the cases. Lockdowns have restricted pastoralists’ ability to move to markets, to tend their animals after curfew times, to move animals near villages and seek fodder. Restrictions on outsiders coming into the local area have also had an impact, as traders no longer come and buy animals or those seeking to harvest products from rangelands – such as the caterpillar fungus in Tibet – no longer are able to come. This reduces incomes and the flexibility so central to pastoralists’ adaptive responses. For, even as the pandemic spread, production continued – animals had to be fed and watered; cows and sheep gave birth and new-borns had to be raised; animals had to be milked and the products stored. Without mobility then many of these basic functions of animal production became difficult.

It was restrictions on markets that perhaps hit pastoralists across our sites the hardest. Local markets closed and artisanal, informal trade was officially banned. The export markets that offer high-value opportunities for live animal trade in East Africa or Tibet, for example, closed, as borders were shut. The classic approaches to responding to uncertainty that are so well honed in pastoral settings involving making use of different market and hedging risks across options were no longer available. In all sites, prices of livestock and their products declined, and markets shrunk.

These changes have had impacts on land relations, including patterns of access, ownership, leasing and so on. With new herd and flock compositions, there were new demands for pasture and water in the rangelands. Having access to and control over valuable grazing and water resources became more important, especially as movements were limited, incomes declined and fodder markets failed.

Skilled labour is essential for successful pastoralism, but COVID-19 has disrupted labour relations significantly. With migration for wage work ceasing, securing wage labourers has become increasingly challenging, and many moved home to their families. Instead, local family labour has had to be mobilised, often including young people and children, who were no longer at school due to closures.

In the absence of state support in many remote pastoral areas, pastoralists have had to rely on their own community-based networks of support and solidarity. The arrival of COVID-19 has provided an important moment for galvanising local forms of moral economy and solidarity – around providing food; supporting production and the management of animals at a collective level and offering labour and care to those in need.

COVID-19 has reshaped politics too. Fears of infection have become politicised, feeding into religious and ethnic divides, as seen in India for example. Marginal, Muslim herders, who sell animals for meat, have been targeted for vicious attacks in some parts of the country. Ostracism and stigma can reinforce divides that have kept pastoralists politically and socially separate from settled agrarian and urban societies. Ethnic, social and cultural differences are accentuated, fuelling a ‘crisis politics’ that results in impositions of authoritarian control. Heavy-handed policing, arbitrary arrests and discrimination of different sorts have been observed.

Practical repertoires for living with uncertainty

Pastoralists have always lived with and from uncertainty, and COVID-19 presented another challenge, layered on responding to climate variabilities, market volatility, insecurity and conflict, among other shocks and stresses. The practical repertoire of responses used in other settings has been important in pastoralists’ responses to COVID-19, and particularly the lockdowns.

This has required adaptation, flexible innovation and new everyday performances of pastoralism that allow solutions to be found. As Abba Hoori from Isiolo, Kenya explained: ‘pastoral life is all about uncertainty, but if the principle of ‘Borani walii waheela ammale walii wareega’ (literally: Boranas are companions and feed each other) is applied then it is easier to overcome even the most difficult uncertainty.’

The voices of pastoralists from across our cases do offer a note of hope and optimism, however. While the pandemic threat is real and the measures imposed harsh, the survival of pastoralism in the face of uncertainty continues to generate examples of creative innovation in everyday practice, offering wider inspiration.

Full citation: Giulia Simula, Tsering Bum, Domenica Farinella, Natasha Maru, Tahira Shariff Mohamed, Masresha Taye and Palden Tsering (2020) ‘COVID-19 and Pastoralism: Reflections from Three Continents’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2020.1808969


Photo Credit: Palden Tsering

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