Pastoralists are a critical but overlooked element of conservation and environmental policy and programming. Erratic weather and prolonged drought, punctuated by increased rainfall in some areas, make transhumance increasingly hazardous and uncertain. This is not a fundamentally new challenge – mobile pastoralism is a system especially suited to handle environmental fluctuations and scarce water and pasture. However, the increasing desertification of the Sahel, soil erosion, and other long-term pressures will make pastoral livelihoods ever more difficult over time. As the total number of livestock rises to accommodate demand, larger herds can quickly exhaust communal lands. Some short-term strategies to help rural populations adapt to resource scarcity and erratic weather, however, can spark tensions. Promoting resilience by diversifying livelihoods (e.g., farming, fishing) is a common approach, but even this can create competition and conflict at the community level.
Pastoralists can be natural allies in conservation. Adaptive and flexible, pastoralism is often seen as a less destructive system of livestock production. It avoids land degradation by not concentrating herds in single locations for long periods, exhausting surrounding resources. Pastoralism may also reduce the emergence or spread of zoonotic diseases that propagate faster in concentrated livestock production sites.
The ecological consequences of pastoralism, however, must be acknowledged alongside its promises and potential. Where pastoral herds are distant from veterinary services, they can act as vectors for diseases originating with wildlife or vice versa. In many protected areas, such as the Zakouma National Park (Chad), Chinko Reserve (CAR) and the W-Pendjari Biosphere Reserve (Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger), pastoralists sometimes engage in poaching or wildlife product trafficking (e.g., ivory). As a result, some conservationists treat pastoralists as adversaries instead of allies. Designating rangelands as protected zones can limit pastoral access to grazing and migration routes. Balancing these competing interests requires closer study of the roles, both positive and negative, that pastoralists play in a region whose environmental vulnerabilities are attracting global concern.
Many arid landscapes host both livestock and at-risk wildlife. Pastoralists travel through these lands while on migration, which can disrupt the balance of fragile ecosystems and present a risk to endangered species. Even within officially protected lands, state authorities or civil society wildlife protectors may have limited capacity to enforce the rules over land use or adjudicate competing interests from pastoralists and park managers. Pastoralists in some regions depend on access to protected land for resources or evading armed groups. Efforts to block pastoralists from accessing these lands (fencing, park rangers, etc.) can escalate tensions without necessarily offering a workable solution. Instead, external interventions should look for “win-win” solutions, such as participatory management models where pastoralists maintain limited access and engage in local decision-making.
Programs engage with pastoralists as stakeholders and invest in long-term relationships.
As temporary inhabitants of a given landscape, it can be tempting to see pastoralists as outsiders with limited claims on local resource management. Yet even without primary ownership rights they are also stakeholders. As livestock migration routes change due to climate pressures or insecurity, other pastoralists may also enter the landscape. The fact of their temporary presence means that securing pastoralist buy-in for conservation requires a long time-horizon and the flexibility to engage with people whose primary residence may be elsewhere, even in another country.
Programs or policy reforms create options for resource access.
A key concern for many mobile pastoralists is that new regulations will prohibit access to territory formerly allowed under customary arrangements. Potential conflicts can be avoided when recurrent pastoralist groups can negotiate alternative arrangements for grazing or passage. In Burkina Faso, for example, local management committees allow pastoralists to access land set aside for conservation or hunting for an agreed fee. Some conservancies in Kenya will differentiate between core zones, where access is prohibited to protect at-risk species, and buffer zones where pastoralists are permitted. It is in the long-term interests of both conservationists and pastoralists that any designated grazing areas or water access points are resourced, strategically located, and well-maintained by the appropriate governing authorities.
Programs are designed around “win-win” solutions.
Pastoralists who are being asked to limit their movements within protected zones need to see clearly how such measures benefit them, as compliance is difficult to enforce. Similarly, park managers or conservation activists need to see pastoralists as potential allies and not spoilers. Appreciating this potential will motivate them to invest the time and energy in building trust and strengthening relationships. Pastoralists, for example, may benefit from land restrictions in protected areas because less utilization means less degradation of migratory routes. Or they may benefit from the protection offered by rangers from criminal syndicates. Park managers, similarly, may benefit from pastoralists’ assistance in monitoring adherence to the established grazing routes or anti-poaching measures. Focusing on building buy-in and acceptance for any rules and regulations is a more effective tactic than competing for control.
Programs establish links with dispute resolution and security mechanisms.
Pastoral lands and protected ecosystems are frequently far removed from central governing authorities, creating openings for criminal activity. Authorities need to be confident that poaching or grazing in protected areas will be punished. Pastoralists want assurances that respecting designated boundaries will reduce risks of theft or damage to their livestock. While security guarantees may be provided to an extent by rangers or other mobile forces, they cannot be present everywhere. Supporting community-level dispute resolution through recognized leaders is a well-established best practice.
Interveners elevate input from conservationists and pastoralists on land tenure reform.
The future of land tenure legislation is crucial for conservationists and pastoralists, despite conflicts of interest. Land tenure systems protecting customary rights to passage can afford pastoralists a degree of legal protection during migration, while conservationists may prefer to see these lands under stricter controls. As land tenure laws are codified or reformed, it should be a priority for conservationists to support consultations with pastoralist communities and ensure that cooperative practices remain at the heart of rangeland management (See 1.1 – Land Tenure Reform for more).
Programs fail to account for the risks to wildlife.
The presence of large cattle herds can negatively impact ecosystems and their wildlife populations, most notably through either the spread of infectious disease or poaching. Some pastoralists in the Chinko reserve, for example, have been reported to hunt buffalo and giant eland to sell the meat for economic gain and poison lions to protect themselves or their herds. A holistic approach to protecting rangelands should ensure that animal health services are accessible to pastoralist populations and robust accountability measures are put in place to prevent poaching.
Officials or armed groups adopt extortionist practices.
Implementing grazing fees or other pay-for-access measures may be necessary to cover the upkeep or protection of certain ecosystems but can also be a source of tension. Across the Sudano-Sahel, pastoralists are frequently subject to extortion from armed groups or state officials who impose high taxes on passing livestock. Imposing these fees without buy-in from pastoral communities may appear as just one more example of predation and undermine trust between pastoralists and local authorities. Restricting access to certain territory or implementing fees should be done through a participatory process in which pastoralist communities can be a part of an informed discussion on the rationale behind such measures.
In Kenya, the Northern Rangelands Trust has adopted an approach to managing wildlife conservancies that prioritizes building partnerships with local pastoralists and supporting pastoralist livelihoods. The Trust takes steps to build good faith relationships with the pastoralist communities who operate in conservancies, by serving as an intermediary in purchasing livestock at stable rates and taking them to market. This trust enables local leaders to implement effective participatory management practices. In the West Gate Conservancy, for example, the practice of allowing cattle to graze freely was identified as a contributing factor in the ecological degradation of the grasslands. Local leaders proposed an alternating grazing scheme, similar to fallowing in agriculture, that consolidated herds into one area at a time, allowing neighboring areas to recover.
Increasingly erratic weather, droughts, and storms associated with climate change have led to substantial investments in resilient rural livelihoods and sustainable food production. Such investments can help rural populations avert severe food shortages, and keep illicit economies to a minimum, and assist in coping with new environmental pressures. However, these programs can also inadvertently reinforce the sources of conflict between pastoralists and settled rural communities. Investments in expanding land used for agriculture, for example, can encourage farmers to incur into pastoral migration corridors. Programs to encourage pastoralists to diversify their livelihoods – through farming, fishing, or other trades – can fuel new forms of competition over access to land or waterways. Interventions focusing on building resilient rural livelihoods need to prioritize Do No Harm principles and conflict sensitivity in design and delivery, even where armed conflict is absent. (See also Module – Rural Development for more information on rural livelihood interventions).
Interveners develop risk assessments that are attuned to the dynamics of pastoralist communities.
Any dramatic changes to the use of resources in shared territories will invariably have unintended secondary effects. In Burkina Faso, for example, some pastoralist groups have contributed to agricultural expansion when settling down to diversify their livelihood with farming, which has incited conflict with sedentary groups competing for land and water. Furthermore, it has been observed that they often tend to settle in pastoral corridors, which block their use by other pastoralists. Risk assessments should seek input from local conflict experts, including pastoralists, who are better attuned to the social and economic interplays among rural populations.
Disaster risk reduction programs are multi-sectoral and proactive.
Periods of sudden shock or environmental disturbance can push pastoralists and farmers together in common cause (survival) or isolate them. Given that climate-related disasters are recurrent, proactive investments in resilience, not just post-crisis recovery, should be a priority. Experience in resilience programming shows that single-sector programs have a higher chance of failure in arid regions where subsistence options are drastically limited. Proactive resilience strategies may include experimental farming plots along pastoral migration routes, or agreements to pre-position cattle feed along established routes to avoid local crop destruction.
National governments include pastoral adaptations when requesting resources to combat climate change.
Building a livestock industry that can withstand desertification and environmental shocks is an urgent priority that is not always reflected in the resources that are devoted to addressing climate change. Basic investments in animal health services, early warning systems, and market integration to build resilience against shocks are far less costly than what is already being spent in food security. Robust veterinary care services through community animal health workers who can reach remote pastoral populations, for example, can curtail the rapid loss of young livestock following severe climate shocks. This can help prevent costly disruption to the regional food supply chain. As national governments request resources for climate change adaptation from sources like the Global Environment Facility, it is important that these can be used to support such investments in pastoral resilience.
Access to grazing and water resources can be unpredictable in the Sahel, particularly as climate change affects rainfall patterns. For some, adapting to climate change may involve taking up livelihoods that are less subject to instability, but efforts have also been made to stabilize pastoralists’ ability to make informed decisions about where to travel in search of pasture or water. In Mali, SNV – the Netherlands Development Organization – and the Netherlands Space Office developed a dedicated information service for pastoralists known as GARBAL. The system provides pastoralists with access to satellite data on available food and water resources along different migration routes that can be accessed through a mobile phone service, which informs their decisions about where to travel.
Photo: Cattle drinking at a water hole in Mali. Credit: Leif Brottem
Public officials and activists frequently point to pastoralism-related violence as a key example of the need for global action on climate change. Often, the argument is that conflicts between pastoralists and farmers are increasing due to the scarcity of resources caused by drought or the depletion of critical water resources, as is the case in the Lake Chad Basin. While climate has a real impact on livestock and crop production, framing conflict as an inevitable consequence of a global phenomenon both overly simplifies a complex issue and shifts focus away from local solutions. Global action on climate change is essential for the Sudano-Sahel, but it is not a precondition for preventing conflict. Public officials and media outlets have a critical role to play in framing the public conversation about pastoralism and climate and driving both long-term actions to mitigate the impact of climate change and short-term actions to prevent violent conflict.
Public officials and analysts acknowledge socio-political causes of conflict alongside the environmental causes.
As noted throughout this Toolkit, pastoralism-related conflicts are not merely the result of scarce land or water or the displacement of pastoral communities caused by drought or flooding (as seen in Sudan during the 1984 drought). These are very real pressures, but only tell a fraction of the story. Public statements from officials should avoid portraying the environment as the primary culprit behind political instability and social flux, as it diverts responsibility from civic leaders who are responsible for mediating disputes over resource access, protecting against banditry, or ensuring that subsistence herders or farmers are not dispossessed by commercial development.
Public officials and analysts communicate both the ecological benefits and risks associated with pastoralism.
Pastoralism has long been dismissed by policymakers and scientists as inadequate to support populations and as environmentally destructive. Portrayals of pastoralism as destructive to biodiversity can reinforce stereotypes and further misunderstandings between pastoralists and conservationists. Yet romanticizing pastoralism for its ‘light footprint’ and efficient use of resources can mean less attention to its direct costs to the environment and wildlife. Public messaging should be balanced and reflect the evidence-based benefits of pastoralism to the environment, while acknowledging associated risks to be addressed in partnership with pastoralists.