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Sustainable Nomadics
Alex Steffen, 21 Feb 05

As many others have pointed out, pastoralism mirrors agriculture: both are means of turning the green of the land into plenty, but where the farmer stays put, cultivates and hoards, the pastoralist "gardens" through awareness and mobility. His herd is his pantry. The timing of his migration to the next pasture, his husbandry. It's a way of life as old as our own. There's not such thing as a post-agricultural civilization, as Gary Snyder reminds us -- but are we about to see a post-pastoral planet?

Herding as a way of life is eroding under a river of pressures. Some threats are political: modern pastoral nomads often lack political power, and sometimes move back and forth across national boundaries as they follow the grazing, bringing them into conflict with multiple settled groups. The economics of herding has been transformed by agro-industry and factory cattle lots. But changes in the land and weather may offer the direst threat. Pastoral nomadism is at home in ecologically marginal lands -- dry scrub, grasslands, high mountains, far Northern forests -- and marginal lands are more vulnerable than most to climate change and over-exploitation. We're already seeing the consequences: what a generation ago were good grazing lands have in many places become semi-deserts.

What are the more than 50 million pastoral nomads worldwide to do? Is there a sustainable nomadic future?

Earlier this month, over 100 pastoral leaders from 25 countries, attended by a flock of NGO, UN and governmental officials, met in Turmi, Ethiopia to explore that question, and concluded that:

"...unless change comes, by 2015 access to education, health, clean water, economic progress and legal protection will have declined in pastoralist areas. Not only will pastoralist people and their animals suffer, but the fragile environments in which they live will have degraded and the markets which they serve will decline. This situation will affect not only herders and their children, but all those who live around and among them, and it will affect national economies and societies in their entirety."

Few think that nomads should just pack up their tents and quit. As the good people at WAMIP -- the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples -- put it, there's a future in nomadics:

"The World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP) is a global alliance of nomadic peoples and communities practicing various forms of mobility as a livelihood strategy while conserving biological diversity and using natural resources in a sustainable way."

Indeed, nomad advocates emphasize that pastoralists have human rights claims to their ways of life, make valuable contributions to many developing world economies and often far better manage the ecological commons through which they move than do more settled peoples. But while these arguments strengthen pastoralists' claims to their lands, they do not neccessarily make their ways of life more likely to endure.

What's needed, it seems, is a new approach which marries political support for (and preservation of) traditional lifestyles and skills to modern tools and support systems.

One example is the work of the Swiss Tropical Institute, which has partnered with pastoral peoples in Chad to develop a program which aims to understand the ways in which human and veterinary medical needs are interrelated in migratory herdsmen, and to learn how best to deliver modern medical care to people who rarely find themselves camped next to a hospital.

Another example is the work of the Shepherd School Programme in Ghana, which brings basic education to pastoral children in a non-formal, community-based culturally appropriate way:

"Pastoral children follow the same syllabus and are graded like other Ghanaian school children. What makes SSP different is that school schedules are flexible. A community management body works to accommodate education needs with the shifting requirements of communities for help with farming and shepherding. Local facilitators mediate between teachers and families. Due to high teacher turnover in northern Ghana, local members who have some secondary education have been recruited and are serving as facilitators. Unlike elsewhere in Ghana, the local language is used at the early stages of schooling."

Finally, the tools themselves can be made nomadic, as in the instance of the networked reindeer herders we covered earlier.

We're still a long, long way from "sustainable nomadics in a box," or even a toolset which should make us confident of the survivability of pastoralism in any form. With real support for nomads' rights and a leapfrogging toolkit geared to their needs, however, we may find that the 21st Century has a place in it for the pastoral.

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In "Four Changes," Gary Snyder's still relevant essay on political ecology from the late 60s, there is a phrase that has always resonated for me:

"Computer technicians who run the plant part of the year and walk along with the Elk in their migrations during the rest."

These days, I wonder if the Elk will be left by the time we are finished.

Posted by: gmoke on 21 Feb 05

If I'm not mistaken, 2015 is the end of the UN Decade for Literacy which aims to provide basic literacy for all children around the world. Obviously, if the projection is the end of nomadic pastoralism in part because of the lack of educational resources, then the Decade of Literacy will have been a failure.

Basic education for all, available through all media including cell phones and other wireless devices as well as word of mouth and hard copy, is also a major tactical strike against world terrorism.

Posted by: gmoke on 21 Feb 05

politics aside, there are 2 documentary films that, when viewed together, show how one nomadic iranian tribe (bakhtiari) has changed over the years. both films were made independent of each other, one in 1924, the other in the 70s. both describe the lifestyle of these people including inter-tribal relations, animal husbandry, family and tradition, and relationship to the land. it's amazing both how much, and how little has changed for them.

"grass: a nation's battle for life"
"people of the wind"

Posted by: hijiki on 22 Feb 05

you do realize that the pastoral lifestyle is a major source of environmental damage and desertification?

there's a reason pastoralists are often found in marginal lands. lands that once provdided good pasture become overgrazed due to the tragedy of the commons. with the loss of major vegetation, erosion and topsoil loss sets in and the land becomes desertified in short order. obviously, climate plays a major role, but look, for example, at the spread of the Sahara through the once green Sahel to see this process in action.

pastoralism is inefficient on an economic, environmental, and human level. we're better off without it.

Posted by: justaguy on 22 Feb 05

Actually, justaguy, some research suggests that pastoralists use the resources on which they depend far more sustainably than settled grazers do (which is usually the alternative) -- I'm by no means a supporter of holding on to traditional ways just because they are traditional, but this may be an exception to the rule...

but I'd like to learn more about the topic in general

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Mar 05



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