Pastoralists are 'invisible assets' in fight against poverty and climate change

East Africa risks losing a vital asset by failing to see the true value that pastoralists bring to national economies and efforts to confront climate change.

News, 18 June 2009

East Africa risks losing a vital asset by failing to see the true value that pastoralists bring to national economies and efforts to confront climate change, says the International Institute for Environment and Development in a new briefing paper.

The paper will be published on 17 June, which the United Nations had declared as World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

It shows how pastoralism provides many hidden benefits that are not included in national statistics. This absence of true values is fuelling the marginalisation of pastoralists and encouraging policies that erode the sector.

"Over 90 per cent of the meat consumed in East Africa comes from pastoralist herds, and the sector is worth US$800 million in Kenya alone," says co-author James MacGregor. "The true economic value of pastoralism is much higher but national statistics simply don’t measure the sector’s many direct and indirect values."

The authors warn although pastoralist communities have developed resilient livelihood systems to cope with difficult environments, global climate change is raising new challenges for them.

"Action at local, national and international levels is needed to prevent destitution and help pastoral groups respond to the changing environment," says MacGregor.

A significant portion of economic activity in pastoralism is informal, taking place within communities and outside of wage, tax and market systems.

This means the sector’s benefits are simply not counted so governments assume pastoralism to be less valuable than alternatives such as export-oriented farming. But the true benefits are many, and they will prove vital as climate change takes effect.

"Livestock serves pastoralists as a bank to invest in, an insurance policy, a currency to trade and a supermarket that supplies milk, meat and leather," says co-author Ced Hesse. "In addition to these direct benefits, pastoralists provide a major boost to agriculture by providing manure, livestock, labour and knowledge, among other things, but most of these benefits go unmeasured in national statistics."

The IIED paper shows that by using the concept called Total Economic Value the many hidden benefits that pastoralists bring to local, national and regional economies can be revealed. It urges East African governments to realise the tremendous potential that pastoralism holds as an adaptive strategy in harsh arid environments.

"Pastoralism brings many uncounted economic, environmental and social benefits that will be of growing importance as climate change takes hold," says MacGregor. "Unfortunately, governments and donors have undervalued the sector for years and this has trapped 20 million pastoralists in a cycle of poverty, conflict and environmental degradation."

Download the briefing paper.