To cope with uncertainty, learn from pastoralists

Michele Nori PASTRES project

Pastoralists are often on the front line of an uncertain world, producing precious food and services in dry, often hostile/difficult landscapes. In a new PASTRES working paper, I explore five principles that allow them to make a reliable living in unpredictable conditions, and how these work in different rangelands around the world.

Though the paper is about pastoralists, the principles and strategies they use are of interest to others too – as embracing uncertainty seems to be increasingly essential to all of us.

In Amdo Tibet, East Africa, Southern Europe, Tunisia and Gujarat, pastoralists use ‘patchworks’ of places and social networks to live and thrive, adapting to the fluctuations of markets, political change and climate disruption.

Despite their skills and experience, pastoralists are now being tested to their limits. But even if the form of pastoralism has changed, the inspiring principles endure and adapt to current conditions, while their practices, strategies, and relations have been altered to respond to new conditions.

Five principles for dealing with uncertainty

Pastres programme identified five core principles that help pastoralists to deal with uncertainty:

Adaptive herd management. Herders continuously adapt their herd size, configuration, and mobility to prevailing conditions and opportunities as they change. Accordingly, pastoralists are continually reorganising how they use land, labour and livestock.

‘Patchworks’ of livelihoods. While livestock remains central to pastoralists’ economy, they integrate their livelihoods with those of farmers, connect to markets, diversify their labour, migrate and adapt to changes in the economic and policy domains.

‘Patchworks’ of territories. Pastoralists operate in a patchwork of different and expanding landscapes and social units that are connected and organised in a reticular, networked fashion.

Moving around. Patterns of mobility persist and diversify, interconnecting these evolving landscapes and the resulting webs of resources and relationships – which are critical in responding to an ever-changing context.

Social networks. Social and institutional arrangements are designed to allow the continuous scouting of territories, the tracking of resources, the prospecting of scenarios, and the seizing of opportunities in settings where these are limited, variable and unpredictable.

Altogether, these principles enable pastoralists to navigate through expanding landscapes and growingly uncertain conditions.

How pastoralists deal with uncertainty around the world

The PASTRES programme has found a number of specific strategies that pastoralists use to respond to uncertainty.

Sharing wealth and risks

In Tataouine, southern Tunisia, pastoralists have revived and adapted the khlata, a kind of social contract that allows them to pool livestock, land and labour.

The area is suffering from more intense dry seasons and drought periods. Herds are smaller, and herders often keep animals as part of a mix of other jobs and sources of income. Through the khlata, households can share resources, costs and opportunities (land, herding labour, water and feed, subsidies, market venues), as well as sharing the burden of risks they face.

Migration and remittances, and the way these processes are mediated by local social institutions, are increasingly vital in supporting local pastoralism.

The long transhumance

In the mid-twentieth century, Sardinian pastoralists migrated in hundreds to the hills of mainland Italy, which had been vacated by locals. They brought with them the Sarda sheep breed, whose milk is used to make the famous Pecorino Romano cheese – a global commodity.

Accordingly, land use was reorganised, household resources relocated, and labour patterns and farming practices were adjusted accordingly through different and evolving ecological, institutional, and market-related dimensions. As well as adapting to new soils and weather, the herders formed groups to help them negotiate with companies and politicians, and sell their produce overseas.

Integrating Sardinian immigrants provided central Italy with a remarkable opportunity to revitalise its inner territories.

Milking opportunities

In Isiolo, Northern Kenya, industries, investors, conservancy and government projects are taking up land and resources that support pastoral livelihoods, and climate change is disrupting the patterns of rains and dry spells.

Some herding communities are changing from cows to camels, who cope better with dry conditions, and provide venues for benefitting from the growing commercialisation of camel milk.

New supply chains have been set up, helped by better roads and communications, and a factory has been established. Women have been at the forefront of the growth in marketing the camel milk, as well as dried meat and yoghurt.

On the move

In Kutch, Gujarat, pastoralists face challenges from green revolution farming, industrial development and pollution. Some animals stay local, but camels, sheep and goats cover large distances with their herders, moving with the seasons.

Kutch pastoralists have reconfigured their mobility patterns, and negotiated arrangements and engagements with articulated interfaces with farming communities and market actors. By partnering with farmers and investing in dairies, storage and transport, they have been able to sell milk to a much wider market than before.

Through various strategies, mobility remains a core pillar sustaining local livelihoods amidst unpredictable conditions and deep ecological, political, and socio-economic transformations.

Patchworks of profit

In Borana, Southern Ethiopia, rangelands are being broken up into farm plots, and open grazing lands are fragmented and individualised. Environmental change is intense. It’s becoming hard to make a living from herding animals alone, so pastoralists have combined this with other jobs, like small-scale trade.

Borana have reorganised their communities and rearticulate territories as a patchwork of interconnected areas, including wetter areas, agricultural plots, peri-urban farmlands, grasslands and forests. They move livestock through these areas according to seasons and rainfall.

Money, information and produce increasingly flow between Borana and further afield to the larger regional and international arena, and herders increasingly use mobile phones, bank accounts, insurance and money transfers, with a view to responding proactively to growing uncertainties.

Weaving on the plateau

In Amdo Tibet, the high plateau is criss-crossed with new wind farms, railways, electricity grids and road networks. State plans and policies are translated into local contexts and rules are negotiated on the ground, through a mix of formal, informal, state and customary dimensions.

In some villages, community leaders and family representatives gather each year to discuss the rules and how they are governed. Pastoralists here must adapt and negotiate with many agencies, from monasteries to local authorities and financial services.

Locally-nested institutional arrangements emerge and evolve, hinging around the much-needed flexibility and adaptability that underpin herders livelihoods in the face of uncertainties.

Pastoralism at breaking point

The principles that pastoralists use to respond to uncertainties have served them well over many years. But in some places, for some people, these have been stretched to breaking point. Research in the Pastres project shows different stresses from our study sites.

For example:

  • Borana pastoralists in Ethiopia are confronted with growing social differentiation and ethnic tensions. These can undermine their ability to organise collective responses to problems.
  • Herders in Amdo Tibet find themselves operating within a shrinking physical space. It is becoming more challenging for them to manage and use ‘patchworks’ of land.
  • Sardinian pastoralists are finding it challenging to hand their skills and experience over to a new generation. They face markets that are increasingly volatile, and unpredictable changes in policy.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the resilience of many pastoralists, but proved challenging for those who rely on wider markets and food systems constrained by lockdowns and restrictions.
  • In all our cases, the poorest groups and households often surrender by abandoning pastoralism altogether, but some have few alternative options for better standards of living.

Despite these stresses, the principles that have sustained pastoralists are still vital. They suggest how, even in very uncertain conditions, it is possible to maintain thriving communities and adapt to change.

Pastoralists are often ignored in debates about food production and environmental change, but they remain a very important source of food and incomes for many people.

Their responses to uncertainty show the importance of adapting to change through expanding their resource base and strong social networks, the need to combine ‘patchworks’ of landscapes and livelihoods, and the challenges and opportunities of life on the move. These require specific managerial skills and governance patterns, which are embedded in pastoral cultures, tailored to uncertainties. 

Read the full paper

To read more, download the working paper: The evolving interface between pastoralism and uncertainty : reflecting on cases from three continents

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