How do land and food policies in West Asia and North Africa affect pastoralists?

A new paper by Michele Nori analyses the policy landscape for pastoralists in West Asia and North Africa. It is the second of four working papers on the framing of policy around pastoralism in different regions of the world (other papers, on Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, will be covered in future posts, and you can read the previous post about Europe).

The rangelands of West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region include the Maghreb and Mashreq, Turkey and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Across the whole region, the climate is typically very hot and dry, but environments vary, from high-altitude mountains to the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara Desert. Animal herds reflect this variation, with cattle more common in semi-arid areas, sheep and goat flocks in arid ones, and camels in nomadic ranges.

Across the whole region, though, livestock rearing is a primary source of livelihood for many people, providing employment and income, and an activity highly relevant to the local culture and identity. Accordingly, animal production, rangeland management and the livestock trade are high priority issues for national and regional politics.

Pastoral communities display a strong attachment to their territory and an important reliance on customary social networks and governance systems. This feature of pastoralism has been problematic for central States, as it challenges their legitimacy in and control on peripheral areas, including border regions.

WANA States have therefore developed policies that disarticulate and reduce the power of local customary institutions, while also seeking to incorporate pastoral communities into national economies. This strategy aims both to make animal products more accessible for urban consumers, and to create opportunities to sustain rural income and livelihoods.

Camels in Tunisia. Photo: Linda Pappagallo

Shifting policies and uncertainties

The uncertainties faced by pastoralists in WANA today are very different from those of a few decades ago. The policy framework across countries in West Asia and North Africa is diversified and fragmented, and conflicts within and between states cause uncertainties and affect pastoral mobilities and trade networks.

However, despite growing tensions, development trajectories have become more aligned over time. Agricultural and food policies in most WANA countries have become increasingly integrated in and depending on global trade: agreements with the World Trade Organisation and the EU increased most countries’ reliance on the imports of food staples and also of agricultural inputs.  

Links and dependencies on the State have deepened. Herding communities in the region have undergone intense incorporation into State-led and market-driven mechanisms that have significantly reconfigured their operational perimeter, and contributed to a sharp reduction in their economic and political autonomy. Institutional support and economic investments have favoured large, intensive farming systems, while support to rural smallholders and drylands communities has been curtailed. State-assisted commodification of livestock products has become a primary production objective for most pastoralists, who are fundamentally conceived as mere livestock producers who must meet the demands of an increasingly demanding population. Livestock rearing now responds to subsidies, loan schemes and input supply systems.

Goats and sheep being trucked to Saudi Arabia for sale. Photo: Mathilde Gingembre

To ensure their social and territorial grip in remote and inner drylands, following independence, most States have engaged pastoral communities in formal organisations, often by co-opting local elites or leaders. From the pastoralists’ end, these evolutions have been used as forms of collective action for lobbying and influencing political decision-making and to access different forms of support from the State. In some countries – for example, Syria and Iran – these have endured, whereas in Tunisia and Algeria, they flourished but did not last.  Elsewhere, Morocco, Egypt and most Gulf countries set in place other, more liberal structures for pastoral communities. Overall these institutional arrangements aimed at dismantling pre-capitalist forms of organisation (tribes, clans, local elites) by replacing them with modern institutions, while also extending the outreach of State agencies and services amongst producers.

Control over rangelands has become a contested arena, where local communitarian and central State agendas have collided. With the support of international organizations, central States have in most cases pursued the control of dryland steppes and communities, through programmes of sedentarisation and individualisation of land rights, and through opening up rangelands to the encroachment of farming schemes, natural reserves or forest plantations. In most cases, the needs and rights of local communities have been given little consideration in development planning.

Degrading livelihoods

From an exceptional measure to sustain herds in times of drought, supplementing feed and water has become the de facto main animal production strategy. Policy efforts have focused on stabilising and ensuring a steady and constant flow of inputs to the livestock system in order to control and intensify its production, and to ensure a more stable and growing output level. These have been accompanied by huge investments in water infrastructure and irrigation development in higher-potential areas – both key drivers of agricultural encroachment on rangelands’ grazing potentials.

Through this strategy, an emergency and relief paradigm has become the mainstream production system. This helped with the short-term goal of meeting growing demands from consumers. However, it has also generated new forms of uncertainties and risks.

Animal density has grown continuously over decades, and has detached significantly from local grazing potentials, as their size, structure and mobility stopped adjusting to inter-annual climatic variations. Rangelands have undergone unbearable pressures, accompanied by the collapse of the institutional arrangements that traditionally regulated their access and use.

Herds in Jordan. Photo: Mathilde Gingembre/Anas Amarneh

Eventually, rangeland ecosystem degradation became the new policy horizon of national and international agencies. Specific programmes and agencies were developed to tackle the problem, but their efforts have focused mainly on the bio-physical aspects, with investments in plantations, green barriers, dune fixation, and water harvesting schemes. The option to restore range ecosystem management in a more integrated way was missed, as local communities were often involved only in executing tasks, in the form of a cheap, locally-available workforce.

Rangelands in WANA countries have become more fragile, and pastoralists have become more dependent on the State. This has led some pastoralists to respond by migrating more permanently out of pastoral areas, seeking other places to live or alternative livelihoods, and sending remittances back home, which are eventually reinvested in supporting the local pastoral economy.

Pastoral futures

What place do pastoralists have now in the policy frameworks of West Asia and North African countries? Pastoralists in the region are mostly regarded as basic suppliers of animal products, and receive public support accordingly. Though squeezed by State and market forces, herding communities maintain degrees of autonomy and flexibility; moving animals, resources and products across borders remains vital, taking often place in informal or unchecked ways. The economies of most pastoral communities in WANA countries are today diversified and often sustained by non-agricultural incomes and remittances, and their livelihoods are increasingly shaped by processes unfolding outside the realm of animal production and very often also outside regional boundaries. This brings new opportunities, but also new tensions and social divisions.

Part of the problem is that pastoralists are being treated with the same approaches and visions designed for intensive production in high-potential areas, rather than being tailored to mountainous or dryland settings, and negotiated with the involvement of local communities. These approaches tend to serve States, consumers and international agendas, rather than pastoral communities themselves. This policy context puts pastoralists in the region under stress, and limits their ability to respond to uncertainties, with livelihoods and rangelands suffering in many areas from degradation.

With a view to redress these dynamics, more recently, a new policy framework began to evolve, and forms of community development planning have become mainstream in political discourse as well as in investment programmes.

Read the paper

Assessing the policy frame in pastoral areas of West Asia and North Africa (WANA)
Working Paper, EUI RSC PP, 2022/02, Global Governance Programme
by Michele Nori

One thought

  1. I could be wrong of course, but it’s interesting to see how the centrality of “mobility” in pastoralist systems is being reconfigured into terms more familiar with another topic area, “temporary migration.”

    Not only are members of pastoralist hhs migrating out of pastoralist communities, even the movement of herds in local areas is beginning to sound like “putting together a chain of temporary migration steps,” as one recent article on temporary migration put it.


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