Navigating through floods and droughts with dryland buffaloes and swimming camels

The PASTRES team recently visited Kachchh in Gujarat, a place that has undergone tremendous change over the last 20 or so years, especially since the investment push following the earthquake that devastated the region in 2001. Natasha Maru, who has recently completed her thesis  on pastoral mobility in the area, organised and accompanied Michele Nori and Ian Scoones on the visit. This blog is a short reflection from two outsiders’ perspectives based on a short visit (so health warnings are attached). Based on experiences across the PASTRES sites, it highlights how pastoralists’ experiences in western India have important parallels elsewhere.

By Ian Scoones and Michele Nori

Adapting to rapid change

As in many areas across the world, pastoralism in Gujarat has had to adapt to a changing climate, expanding agriculture, massive industrialisation, a huge growth in road infrastructure and an explosion of populations in urban areas, as well as resulting shifts in markets for pastoral products. Uncertainties are therefore everywhere for pastoralists. Many pastoralists have left livestock keeping for other jobs, made possible by the growing ports and cities; others have invested in transport and other businesses alongside livestock keeping. But many continue to practice pastoralism, adapting flexibly to new circumstances.

We visited the Rabari pastoralists from Kachchh grazing their animals in the on cotton crop residues in the nearby Morbi area. We also visited Jat pastoralists herding camels along the coastal strip of Saurashtra, as well as those visiting the Banni grasslands. And finally, we visited buffalo pastoralists in the famous Banni grasslands to the north of Bhuj, where milk production from extensive grazing is an important source of livelihood.

All are very diverse settings, with different ethnic and religious communities and all interacting with farming and urban populations in different ways. But, as we have seen across the PASTRES case studies, there are some striking commonalities in pastoral strategies to generate reliability in the face of high levels of variability in environment, economic and political terms.

Rabari pastoralists: shepherding sheep and goats

The Rabari pastoralists we met had sheep and goats. Sheep are the dominant livestock, but the breeds compositions have changed as the demand for wool has collapsed and animals are kept for meat sales, with goats largely providing the milk consumed by the family. Camels are kept as labour for migrating to pastures in the dry season, but there are fewer these days as people are buying trucks to transport their families and belongings when on the move, as these are more convenient, though costly, and the road network has been developed.

Their patterns of movement have changed too. No longer do they move to the forested hills of southern Gujarat but they prefer to move shorter distances (still hundreds of kilometres) to the areas just south of the Gulf of Kachchh. Here farmlands have become valuable fodder resources and pastoralists exchange manure and labour for access to cotton fields. The massive expansion of borewell irrigation in Gujarat (combined with canal irrigation from the Narmada project) has meant that agriculture has increased, and crop cycles have changed. The arrival of genetically-modified Bt cotton after 2001-2 has meant that a more edible form of cotton residue is available and earlier as much of it is now irrigated to some extent, and farmers are keen for livestock keepers to clean the field so that other crops can be planted.

Pastoralists – both those migrating such as the Rabari as well as those resident in nearby villages – are welcomed onto farmlands. The Rabari we visited were moving with several flocks together with families, including men and women, hired herders, older and younger children (those not at the home village and attending school). Animal manure and labour for cotton plucking may be part of the grazing arrangement. Further agricultural developments (tractors, chemicals) might restrain the place for pastoralists’ contributions.

The pattern of conflict between herders and farmers seen in some parts of the world were not observed, and networks and relationships built up over years enhance trust. In fact, establishing close ties is vital for the herder as much as for the farmers.  The migrating Rabari pastoralists with sheep and goats may compete with local resident pastoralists, however, who have increasingly larger herds of buffalo, as the high fat content of its milk and the availability of networks of collection points make milk production increasingly valuable.

Jat pastoralists: camels on the move

The Muslim Jat pastoralists are reliant on camel-keeping, and again may have buffaloes too. Milk sales, once taboo, are the main source of income, and milk is sold to the collection points in local villages. Otherwise, camels are sold alive and piece work is an option for some. The Jat pastoralists are always moving between sites, with camps established near where their camels can graze. Those we visited again combined several herds, each numbering about 40-50.

Each group takes a different route. We met some Jat pastoralists in Banni to the north, and they were making use of the wetlands during the dry season. They said they’d move from there slowly towards the cropping areas to the south. However, due to the lack of common grazing and the intensification of agriculture they say access to good fodder for camels is shrinking as the right trees and shrubs are no longer there.

They milk the animals throughout the year. In a herd of 40 perhaps six might be milking at a time, producing around 30-40 litres a day. Admittedly, the growing market for camel milk has influence on their migration routes as accessing collection points is important.

By contrast the Jat pastoralists we met in the Saurashtra area near the coast moved more locally between farmlands and the coastal strip, where their Kharai camels could swim in the mangrove areas during the monsoon. These coastal Jat pastoralists complained about the struggles to gain access to monsoon grazing in the coastal areas due to a marine national park that is protecting mangrove areas. Despite the fact that the Kharai swimming camels having been part of the coastal ecosystem for centuries, access is being now denied as they are deemed damaging to a protected nature. For this reason efforts by local NGOs such as Sahjeevan are being focused on securing rights of access to grazing areas that are protected as part of the Forest Rights Act. This includes the mangrove areas by the coast and the vast Banni grassland.  However, claiming such rights is a long, bureaucratic process and as in other settings where rights are claimed for one group, others become excluded.

Buffalo pastoralism in the Banni grasslands

The Banni grasslands are world-famous, with the annual ‘desert festival’ attracting tourists from across the globe during the winter months. The crafts, clothing and jewellery produced by pastoralists, especially women, provide important income. However, these renown ‘grasslands’ are now more a huge shrubland thanks the massive encroachment of Prosopis juliflora. The tree was seeded as part of a programme to combat ‘desertification’ and to create a ‘green wall’ of trees to stop the spread of the salt deserts to the north in the 1960s and 70s.

As in many pastoral areas of East Africa for instance, Prosopis has taken over what were once extensive grazing areas requiring a radical shift in livestock species. The mature trees’ leaves are poisonous, and the alkaloids they contain restrict grasses in the vicinity. The pods can be edible, but the pod cases are not easily digested by cattle in particular. Goats and sheep cope better as do camels, while the Banni buffalo can tolerate them. This means that pastoralists must shift herd/flock compositions to make use of today’s available fodder. Meanwhile, the tree has become a valuable source for charcoal making, especially for those with few animals.

This new setting presents opportunities and challenges, with different winners and losers. Those living near the tourist destinations have diversified, offering homestays and resorts, while those in the lower lying areas, which flood extensively in the monsoon, have enough grazing to support buffaloes in large numbers. Here the floods restrict the regrowth of trees in some areas and nutritious grasses can thrive. Although cattle are kept in smaller numbers the ratio between cattle and buffaloes has reversed with 80% of holdings now being buffalo. They graze freely with limited herding labour and herds range from around 30 to several hundred. Buffalo milk has a high fat content and the network of milk sales outlets across the area results in a steady stream of income for buffalo pastoralists. Banni pastoralists thrive navigating btw droughts and floods, enjoying limited formal land rights but making skilled use of variable ecological conditions.

Changing production patterns

With milk production being so important across the region, the infrastructure for milk collection, processing and sale – operating through local cooperatives and the national brand, Amul – built up from the ‘white revolution’  is impressive. Such a system would be the envy of milk producing pastoralists anywhere. While prices are not high, and payments are based on fat content rather than the specialist qualities of different species’ milk,. When collection points are not available, pastoralists can also sell by volume to milk sellers and local tea stalls. Demand remains high throughout the year.

Milk is especially important when other livestock products have changed their value. For sheep producers, wool is no longer an option, so selling of animals for meat is the main strategy. However, the demand for meat is variable due to cultural/religious prohibitions of different sorts. This applies of course to cattle where no beef consumption is allowed and extensive prison sentences can be imposed for abusing ‘holy cows’, protected by a particular brand of Hinduism. Live sales of camels are an option, although meat sales are culturally prohibited. Although the value of camels for transport and ploughing has declined, in tourist areas camel carts have become a mode of transport for sight-seeing.  

With changing values of different animals and products, due to vegetation, land use, market and cultural/religious and political factors, pastoralists must shift their herd/flock compositions, change their breeding strategies and seek out new markets. In just a few years, all of the pastoralists we met had changed radically as new restrictions but also new opportunities arose. Adaptive flexibility as everywhere is essential.

Persisting pastoralism

The narrative that pastoralism is finished and is a backward, degrading production system that needs to disappear remains evident in western India as it does in so many places across the world. But evidence on the ground contradicts such a simplistic storyline. Pastoralism is changing for sure, and many in pastoralist families seek other jobs, at least for some of the time or for periods of their life. It is not anymore just about ecological scouting for grazing resources, but increasingly also social negotiations to access them, together with continuously recomposing herds and adapting mobility. But as environments change, as agricultural patterns shift and markets transform, so pastoralists change too. As everywhere, there is no option but to respond to variability and live with uncertainty.

Amongst the windmills, electricity pylons, new highways, factories, tourist infrastructure and intensive irrigated agriculture of Gujarat, pastoralism is very different to the exoticized, ‘traditional’ image of the past that is celebrated in cultural fairs and artefacts. However, as a system of production and livelihood – harsh and challenging though it certainly is – pastoralism, whether involving sheep and goats, camels, cattle or buffaloes or some combination, remains lucrative and persists despite such dramatic changes. Communities living with dryland buffaloes and swimming camels are exploring shifting market opportunities, and enjoying the support of a well organised and vibrant civil society. They remain an important component of the fast-changing landscape of western India, requiring greater policy attention and recognition.  

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