Drought is once again threatening the drylands of the Horn of Africa. Pastoralist communities are often those most affected, and people are always quick to proclaim the death of the pastoralist way of life. Yet in fact pastoralism is a story of success against all the odds. It just needs more support and investment, as this film shows:
Millions of people survive through pastoralism. It’s an extraordinary way of making a living from an environment that looks impossible to survive in.
The livestock trade from the drylands is a multi-million dollar business – a significant slice of the national economies. Most of the milk, meat and animal products for the region are produced by pastoralists for the growing towns and villages. These animals are trekked across the forbidding plains and sold to middle men, then trucked off to get fattened up. Many will end up on plates in Saudi Arabia, or further afield – Egypt, the Gulf, even Iraq. And the demand for meat is growing
Yet this multi-million dollar trade runs itself without any real support.
Inadequate government investment and poor services – even basic needs like getting water are a daily challenge. Water is rare in the drylands, and extraordinary effort goes into getting it. Here it’s like digging for gold – months of excavation before striking rich.
Drought is common. There are ways to cushion the shocks – women’s cooperatives in Borena, Ethiopia, collect grass when it’s plentiful and build up hay stocks – but climate change means drought has become more frequent and weather patterns more extreme. There is less time to prepare and greater pressure on what’s already there.
So why is one of the most productive economic groups in the region so neglected?
Mohammed Elmi is the Kenyan MP responsible for development of northern Kenya and other arid lands. He also comes from a nomadic pastoralist family: “Pastoralists are flexible – they take opportunities as they come. People say, ‘oh pastoralism is over-supported with relief’ – yet probably the amount that we support with pastoral livelihoods when they are under shock is much smaller when compared to all the subsidies we put into underwriting the debts of coffee farmers or tea farmers, or subsidised fertiliser.”
“Traditionally you would say pastoralists supported each other through the clan system,” says Elmi. “But once we have become a state, which levies taxes, it becomes the responsibility of the state to take care of those vulnerable people.”
Finding new ways to make old traditions work more effectively helps – like using mobile phone transfers to open up markets. Pastoralists have been among the first to take advantage of this innovative service in Kenya, and people like John Maitei use it to help cope with drought: “When I have a lot of cows and very little grass, I sell them for slaughter, before they die. It’s easier and quicker to do it on mobile credit.”
Weathering change in the most remote drylands is difficult, especially when mobility is restricted. National parks and wildlife reserves limit the seasonal movements of pastoralists.
Yet pastoralist communities know the environment intimately and are best placed to look after it. But far from the reach of government they are often shut out of central decision making processes. Protecting the environment with the help of pastoralists makes more sense.
In Ethiopia, pastoralist communities have moved to reclaim the rangelands. The invasive bush and trees are stripped out and pasture allowed to re-grow. Only the young and weak animals can graze. Local herder Haro Garaba explains: “We have rules agreed by the community. The elders control it. If someone brought livestock in without permission, a penalty is imposed.”
Governments, it seems, are most likely to notice pastoralists when they clash over scarce resources. But harsh security operations and badly conceived responses make matters worse.
In Karamoja, northeastern Uganda, the army occasionally confines huge herds in an effort to prevent insecurity in neighbouring districts. It’s an environment that encourages disease. Mobile animal health workers help the community try and keep the animals fit.
With so many pressures, the pastoralist system can collapse – which becomes much more costly than supporting it. A decade of food aid to the Karamojong has provided no solution, where timely support and investment could have done. And a livelihood lost is very difficult to regain.
In Samburu, northern Kenya, communities say they have lost cattle in security crackdowns. One villager says, “The livestock were driven away by the government. They had helicopters and vehicles.”
With the lack of support for the pastoral lifestyle, choices are having to be made, especially among the younger generation. Different ways of earning a living include finding a wage or setting up business. John Mundes from the Ethiopian-Kenyan border moved to the city and sends cash home: “In Maralal there is drought and my friends’ cows died. But because I had this job, my family did not go hungry. If they are drinking milk like other families, isn’t that okay?”
It is the tenacity of pastoralism that provides the best argument for support and investment.
In Somalia, devastated by conflict for nearly two decades, the livestock trade is still worth millions of dollars. It keeps the economy going.
Helping to reverse the odds means investing in pastoralism, by recognising the importance of pastoralist livelihoods in the drylands and using appropriate policies and practices.
Better for everyone to keep one step ahead.