Misconceptions on drylands and pastoralism

Drylands are among the world’s most variable and unpredictable – but productive and misunderstood – environments. People have learnt to harness their variability to build sustainable economies, societies and ecosystems, but policymakers often ignore this wealth of experience and expertise. 

Pastoralists in Niger. Drylands are not deserts: they have ephemeral but resilient resources.  (Photo: Stephen Anderson/IIED)

The poor policies that result from this approach undermine pastoral strategies and people's ability to seize opportunities from markets and new technologies. This leaves people vulnerable to climate variability and extreme climate events as pastoral systems increasingly fail to provide sustainable livelihoods, perpetuating poverty and creating a vicious circle that reinforces misconceptions about drylands. 

Negative global policy narratives 

Global and national policy narratives present drylands as ecologically fragile problem areas with scarce resources, portraying their dry environment and variable climate as major constraints to productivity that compel communities to over-farm or over-graze the land.

Policymakers view traditional livelihoods and land use systems as economically inefficient and environmentally destructive and interpret livestock mobility and negotiated, reciprocal access to pastures and water as coping mechanisms, rather than pro-active husbandry strategies that manage uncertainty and exploit variability to maximise productivity.  

Although researchers and practitioners have widely critiqued these environmental degradation narratives as conceptually flawed and lacking in empirical evidence, they have proved remarkably persistent in policy circles at national, regional and global levels. International and national media, the formal education curriculum and legacy of development thinking have perpetuated and reinforced these narratives and attitudes.   

A failure of policy and practice 

Since colonial times, drylands policy and practice has focused on bringing order and stability while eliminating – rather than working with – variability. Driven by experience in more temperate European and American climates where resource distribution is relatively stable and uniform, this approach considers pastoralism as backward, unproductive, environmentally destructive and disorderly.  

Deep-rooted cultural biases against dryland groups, especially mobile pastoralists, drive governments and the wider public to see mobility as irrational and incompatible with the concept of a modern society and settlement as a natural progression towards a more civilised way of life. 

With many pastoral regions far from the political and economic centres of power, settlement policies favour central control and (often imported) technical solutions, rather than practices based on local knowledge, experience or institutions. Attempts to settle mobile producers usually replace local variable, flexible structures and relationships with top-down, rigid or static rules such as centralised stocking and grazing control,  permanent wells in seasonal rangelands, and rigid and exclusive land ownership.   

All too often, dryland development discourse is based on rapid growth through agricultural intensification, foreign capital and privatising key resources. Ruling elites and powerful economic players use images of supposedly degraded drylands to promote the appropriation, fragmentation and conversion of rangelands for large-scale irrigation and mechanisation schemes, ranching and export-oriented agribusinesses. But these have a track record of short-lived returns and a heavy ecological footprint.  

Essentially, they serve the political and economic interests of powerful groups, particularly government and business. Governments claiming to settle pastoralists on environmental or economic development grounds are often motivated by the desire to better control and monitor them.

And when huge profits are to be made from leasing land to foreign investors for large-scale farming or mining, it can be expedient to blame pastoralists or smallholder dryland farmers for destroying their environment or failing to meet market demand. 

A downward spiral 

National policies that favour large-scale technological investments over institutional change to support local resilience fail to understand the logic that underpins local practices and ignore the interests, knowledge  and needs of pastoralists. The lack of investment in mobility has created a huge development deficit in dryland areas. 

Pastoralists lose access to and control of land and resources as wildlife conservation areas, ranches, agriculture and permanent settlements are established in once-prime grazing areas. With the rangelands fragmented, customary institutions become weaker and animal wealth is more concentrated. Production objectives diverge, eroding common interests in maintaining collective range and water resources.

As the land becomes more degraded, pastures are less productive and resilient, supporting fewer livestock. Households become poorer and less able to withstand drought. Rising population in pastoral areas exacerbates the impacts of poverty.  

And when the loss of livelihood security, land fragmentation, alienation and disempowerment of traditional institutions are accompanied by a proliferation of automatic weapons and a growing sense of disillusionment among the disenfranchised youth, conflict increases. Ethno-politics also exploits the vacuum created by government failure to invest in credible institutions and governance, and pastoral people get caught up in larger political struggles. 

A need for change 

Attempts to replace traditional land use practices with modern techniques have exacerbated poverty, degradation and conflict. And climate change projections for many dryland areas indicate that climate variability will increase in the short and medium terms, with more severe extreme weather events.

Such scenarios pose real difficulties for climate adaptation, particularly in the development deficit situations of many dryland regions.  

Productive pastures and strategies for success 

There is growing evidence that, despite antagonistic policies, pastoralism is an ecologically efficient, sustainable system that creates substantial economic value. It directly supports 20 million people in eastern Africa, producing 80% of Ethiopia's annual milk supply and 90% of meat consumed in East Africa. With appropriate support, it can be a cost-effective, climate-resilient livelihood system. 

Pastoralists use a number of strategies and institutions to exploit climatic variability and maintain relatively high long-term production despite periodic losses. They know how to harness variably distributed nutritious pastures to increase livestock productivity while adapting to extreme climate events. Pastoralism out-performs intensive livestock keeping and ranching in similar environments and has lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

A future for pastoralism 

The future of drylands and its people lies in securing pastoralism for those who wish to remain pastoralists and providing alternative, but complementary, livelihood options for those who do not (or cannot).  

A complex and dynamic mix of economic, social and political factors sustains existing narratives for the drylands, despite the steady accumulation of scientific evidence that these narratives are fundamentally flawed.   

There is an urgent need to reframe drylands policy and practice based on sound scientific information, local knowledge, informed participation and the wisdom of customary institutions that emphasise social equity, ecological integrity and economic development. The African Union policy framework for pastoralism offers an opportunity to make pastoralism a mainstream part of national and regional policies.  

But improving policymakers’ understanding of what makes drylands work is not enough. Pastoral people and their institutions have a central role to play in designing supportive national policy and investments. Although their existing adaptive capacities are not perfect, they are vibrant economic actors who generate wealth from environments in disequilibrium and contribute to national and regional growth. They have much to teach us about living in a world of increasingly extreme variability. 

Climate risk management in dryland development strategies offers an opportunity to enhance policy development and planning from local through to sub-regional, national and regional policy levels. Some governments are already using the urgent need to address climate change as an opportunity to introduce more progressive dryland policy and planning, based on scientific knowledge and successful local practice and experience.   

Mainstreaming climate change adaptation and mitigation into dryland planning will provide a vehicle for re-appraising dryland development. An alternative policy discourse could persuade policymakers to design and implement a more supportive policy environment for climate-resilient development in the drylands, with progressive drylands development solutions. 

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Ced Hesse (ced.hesse@iied.org), principal researcher, Climate Change research group

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