Pastoralism against land grabbing: decolonizing development narratives for a just socio-ecological transition

by Maura Benegiamo

The book “La terra dentro il capitale. Conflicts, ecological crisis and development in the Senegal delta“, (Land and capitalism. Conflict, Ecological Crisis, and Development in the Senegal Delta) written by Maura Benegiamo and published by Orthotes (2021), focuses on the relationships between coloniality, agro-industry and current green capitalism. It tells the story of a conflict involving some pastoralist communities opposed to large-scale land investment in the Senegal River Delta region.

In 2012, a land concession of 20.000 hectares was granted by the Senegalese government to an Italian company who planned to grow sweet potatoes and sunflowers for export to Italy for the production of ‘green’ energy.  Mobilised against the expropriation of their pasture’s lands, local pastoralists began to fight back against ‎green capitalism and the expansion of agrarian extractivism.

Their struggle also testifies to ‎the difficult transition faced by pastoralists across the Sahel. Access to land is undoubtedly crucial for the future sustainability of pastoral activities. However, local land demands cannot be disconnected from a socio-ecological vision of development, which is radically opposed to the narratives of modernisation that have framed pastoralist political ecologies since the era of colonisation.

Like other colonial deltas, the history of the Senegal delta region is closely entangled with that of the evolution and crisis of extensive and nomadic pastoralism. Until sixty years ago, the delta offered herders’ families – mostly belonging to the Fulani ethnic group – and their cattle vast pastures, enriched by numerous wetlands fed by the tributaries and runoffs of the Senegal River.

It was only in the 1960s, the year of Senegal’s independence, that the colonial project to convert the region into a monoculture for rice production took off, following further interventions to regulate the level and duration of the floods.

Agricultural interventions radically altered the social, political and environmental landscape of the region, and beyond. The development of irrigated agriculture in the vast depressional lands near the river resulted in the displacement of herds, preventing access to the main water sources. Meanwhile, the emphasis on agriculture as a driver for development in socialist Senegal, along with access to land through agrarian cooperatives, led to the disavowal of pastoral rights to land in national legislation and customary practices.

In the 1980s, following Senegal’s adherence to structural adjustment programmes, the decline of cooperatives and the decentralisation of land governance led to a further loss of pastureland to agriculture.

A young herdsman crosses the company’s concession to bring cows to water at nearby Lake Guiers. Pic by Giada Connestari

Although weakened, pastoralism did not disappear from the region. On the contrary, several adaptative strategies were adopted. For those herders who wanted to maintain control over the alluvial lands closest to the river, the principal solution was to participate in rice farming programs, and adapt their pastoral system, often by reducing the volume and mobility of the livestock. Others took refuge further south, in the arid hinterland, to preserve cattle and nomadic techniques.

It is precisely in these fallback lands that the Senegalese government has concentrated, since the beginning of the 2000s, the main land concessions. These have especially been granted to foreign investors who are presumed to be able to develop irrigated agriculture here. From the government’s point of view, this initiative completes the process of agricultural expansion undertaken since independence. From the perspective of herders, it precipitates a crisis that definitively threatens the survival of pastoralism in the region.

As one breeder explained during an interview:

The land that remains is not enough. Wherever you can put your foot down, you will be told to take it off as it is already reserved for someone else. So, if wherever you place your feet you are told to take them off, if you look closely, then you realize that we are facing a big problem: we are really at risk. Because I think that if you live in one place for more than a hundred years and that you have no paper that can justify your ownership on that land, then you are without guarantees, you are truly suspended in the void.” (Personal communication, November 2014, own translation from Poulaar)

Today, as in the past, the reasons for these choices find ideological support in a conception of semi-nomadic pastoralism as an ancestral residue, to be overcome through a necessary modernization by means of the industrialization of the sector and its transformation into a supplier of meat for urban markets. This is made explicit in the text of the New Sectoral Initiative for Livestock Development, which describes the semi-extensive pastoral practice as contemplative, anarchic and irrational:

The image of starving and debilitated cattle wandering in search of hypothetical pastures and water points must disappear forever from the Senegalese agricultural landscape

Nouvelle Initiative sectorielle pour le développement de l’élevage, République du Sénégal, Dakar October 2004, p. 6, own translation from French

We also find echoes of these narratives in the social and environmental impact study conducted by the company that obtained the land lease, where it is reported that:

A young pastoralist woman prepares to wash clothes, not far from her village, on the area the Senegalese government has granted to the company. Pic by Giada Connestari

This vision has facilitated the marginalisation of pastoral practices, in the absence of sound initiatives in terms of political and economic support that would enable herders to adapt and evolve in line with the region’s changes. It also supports a view of recent conflicts against new land concessions as struggles and demands for the defense of the status quo, hostile to a necessary economic development. The true meaning of local demands is thus made invisible and silenced.

If we pay attention to the discourses at the local level, it becomes evident that, contrary to the dominant narratives, pastoralists are actually fighting for what we can define as radical and future-oriented transformations. They are promoting a vision of transition that breaks with the developmental and colonial legacy towards more equitable and sustainable models of coexistence between agriculture and pastoralism.

According to a statement collected on the ground:

They [the development planners] think that the breeding must be industrial, but we, for our part, also think. And what we think is that the breeding is in the savannah and it does not consist in teeing up the cows here or there. My idea is that they should help people to have the means to work. Helping people is equivalent to giving each activity its part and its value, whether it is agriculture or livestock. Reserved areas must be defined for the two activities.” (Personal communication, October 2014, own translation from Poulaar)

Cows cool off in a pond in the Ndiaël bird reserve in the Senegal Delta, part of the reserve’s land has been downgraded to be given to the company. Pic by Maura Benegiamo

While the effectiveness of green capitalism solutions in matching social and environmental sustainability is seriously under question, numerous experiments are already under way in the Sahel. However, local needs cannot be grasped without taking into account the desire of herders to preserve the social and environmental sustainability of a practice whose importance stems from cultural, economic and ecological reasons that cannot be separated from one another.

The land grabbing phenomena has put the urgency of pastoralist claims back at the centre of the political arena. This makes it important to understand how these are not only about resisting the processes of dispossession and marginalisation, but also about supporting alternative narratives and visions, capable of giving value to the other developmental paths that have existed alongside colonial modernity.

Other resources:

Benegiamo Maura (2020) Extractivism, exclusion and conflicts in Senegal’s agro-industrial transformation. Review of African Political Economy, 47:166, 522-544, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2020.1794661

Benegiamo Maura (2020) Gouverner les frontières du développement : État et entreprises dans la gestion des investissements fonciers au Sénégal, Critique Internationale, 89(4), pp. 29-51.

Benegiamo Maura (2019) Pluralizzare il capitalocene, pensare la transizione. Investimenti agricoli in Africa e nuova questione agraria. Sociologia Urbana e Rurale 2019, pp. 62-76, doi: 10.3280/SUR2019-120005

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