Better approaches in support of pastoralism

Better approaches in support of pastoralism

By and
19 December 2016

Pastoralism is a way of life for between 200 and 600 million people. Despite this, the future of many pastoralist societies is under threat. Representatives belonging to more than 100 pastoralists’ organisations from 38 countries endorsed a statement expressing the needs and priorities of pastoralists. Outlined in this article, the statement is a call for the rights, culture and knowledge of pastoralists to be recognised, valued and supported.

Photo: © VSF Germany

Pastoralism is the main livelihood in many drylands, mountainous and other areas, where other forms of agricultural practices are not feasible. Pastoralists contribute to efficient management and governance of rangelands and protection of natural resources. In such challenging territories pastoralism presents the best livelihood strategy to provide food, income and employment. These benefit pastoral communities, but also those living in farming areas, urban centres and coastal regions.” These words open the pastoralists’ and extensive livestock breeders’ statement that was adopted by pastoralists’ representatives from Africa, Latin America and Asia at the special session on pastoralism at IFAD’s Farmers’ Forum. The statement makes a number of recommendations to policy makers – and especially to IFAD – on how to support them through both investment and inclusion in policy dialogue.


Pastoralists are marginalised in most parts of the world and are rarely consulted on policies that affect them. While societies and citizens increasingly recognise the value of pastoralism, many still regard it as backward and as a threat to national security. Some ministries or policies still try to lure (or even force) pastoralists into permanent settlements. While pastoralists want their voices to be heard, they are often not given the opportunity for this, and they lack the ability or the tools to organise and gain political influence. This may be because the issues are technical in nature (for example in food safety), policymakers are unwilling to subject drafts to scrutiny by advocacy groups, or pastoralists are poorly organised politically. As outlined in their statement, pastoralists need more support in capacity building and institutional strengthening of local, national, regional and international organisations and their networks. Strengthened pastoralist organisations can more effectively engage in policy dialogue, advocate for their interests and contribute to initiatives that benefit pastoralism. For example, pastoral parliamentary groups have appeared in some countries (e.g. in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and India) to press for pastoralists’ interests at the national level (see page 8). At the international level, initiatives, such as the the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP) and the Pastoralists’ Knowledge Hub, aim to strengthen regional networks of pastoral civil society and facilitate their participation in policy dialogue.

Land rights and tenure

A special session on pastoralism preceded the sixth Farmers Forum held in Rome in February, 2016. Photo: © VSF International

Pastoralists rely on livestock mobility and communal land for their livelihoods. Access to land and tenure rights remain a major concern for pastoralists worldwide. Rules on land tenure vary widely among countries, but most formal legal systems do not recognise or guarantee customary tenure rights. The discovery of oil and minerals, the expansion of intensive cropping, urbanisation and the designation of nature reserves and wildlife parks have boosted interest in pastoralist territories. Such uses often occupy the best-watered land, cutting off herders’ access to pastures and water sources they rely on in the dry season. These uses also contaminate natural resources. As written in their statement, “often investments come in the name of public interest and national development but directly and indirectly they harm our livelihoods by grabbing land, water and other natural resources.”

In order to guarantee access and user rights to land and water, governments have to recognise and protect customary land-tenure rights, traditional rules and rangeland management norms, and communities should be able to formalise their customary and collective tenure. Formalising customary land tenure using group Certificates of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCRO) is one tool that has had some success in Tanzania. In the context of Tanzanian national law CCROs provide legal rights to communities to resist land grabbing and manage their natural resources according to their way of life (see interview on page 32).

Pastoralists at the Farmers’ Forum
IFAD’s Farmers’ Forum is a bottom-up process of consultation and dialogue between smallholder farmers’ and rural producers’ organisations from all over the world and IFAD and its member states. A special session on pastoralism preceded the sixth meeting, held in February 2016. The special session and its statement were the result of a participatory consultation process that was facilitated by Vétérinaires Sans Frontières International (VSF-Int) and its members. Five regional meetings of pastoralist civil society organisations (in West and Central Africa, East and Southern Africa, North Africa and West Asia, Central and Southern Asia and Latin America) were organised to prepare for the special session. In parallel, VSF surveyed pastoralist practices and realities in seven pastoralism ‘hotspots’: the Arkhangai in Mongolia; the Altiplano and Chaco in South America; Wagadou and Gourma in the Sahel; Tiris Zemmour in the Sahara and the Afar and Chalbi areas in the Horn of Africa.

Supporting mobility

Mobility is key to enhancing livestock production as the herds move in search of pastures and water. Mobility is also strategic for trading as well as to manage risk due to drought, conflict, disease outbreak, or in other periods of hardship. Restricting mobility poses serious challenges to pastoralists’ livelihoods, economy and overall security. In West Africa, for instance, there is an historical interdependence between the landlocked Sahelian countries and the coastal countries in the south. Sahelian pastoralists move with their herds to neighbouring coastal countries to find pastures during the lean period (transhumance corridors), while high demand markets in the coastal countries welcome their livestock and products (marketing corridors). However, the increasing obstacles to convey their herds across different territories or to get access to watering points, as well as the high administrative burdens (high and even illegal taxation), are a major concern for millions of pastoralists.

Often investments harm our livelihoods by grabbing land, water and other natural resources

Fair markets for pastoral products

Photo: © Tim Dirven for VSF Belgium

Pastoralism is a major contributor to the economy of many countries. In Sudan, for example, it accounts for 80 % of the agricultural gross domestic product. Pastoral communities seek additional and better marketing options to ensure they receive fair prices for their products. A typical example is meat, milk and dairy products. When producing these products, pastoralists often ensure high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. Despite the high demand for these products and services by urban consumers, the way in which value chains are managed or governed does not accordingly benefit pastoralists.

Efforts and investments are needed to tip the balance in favour of pastoralists. For instance, adequate and accessible infrastructure, education, technical training to guarantee quality standards of livestock products, capacity building and micro finance are some practical measures mentioned by pastoralists.

Moreover, value-added products are an especially important source of income for women who face additional constraints such as unequal access to resources and decision making roles. The role of women in a Mongolian pastoralists’ cooperative shows that women’s participation in fair markets can lead to improved gender relations as well as food security for households. The Arvidjin Ar Delgerekh cooperative in the Khangai mountains focused on the yak fibre production and processing. Women took on the role of spinning and knitting baby yak fibre. Compared with previousely selling raw yak fibre to middlemen, the yarn and knitted products are a way for women to contribute to their families’ income. Moreover, the women’s active role has led to a more inclusive governance of the cooperative itself. Evolution of camel milk marketing in northern Somalia (Puntland and Somaliland) has also shown how women’s agency is critical in fostering social change and economic development under difficult conditions.

Adapted services

Pastoralist areas are often poorly provided with basic services compared to other areas in the same country. In northeastern Kenya, for example, only one-third of primary-aged children are enrolled in school: half the national rate. Only a tiny minority of children attend secondary school, few households have access to electricity, safe drinking water or pre-natal care and, only half the children are vaccinated. Similar discrepancies are found in other countries.

As well, provision of animal-health services is extremely important to pastoralists, not only to protect their livestock assets (which ultimately assures their food security) but also because such services are often the only link to public institutions. Health (both for humans and for animals) and education services are needed that are adapted to the mobile lifestyle of pastoralism. These services may be mobile themselves, such as the mobile schools programme which moves with the Turkana in Kenya, or offered at convenient locations, such as at different fixed sites in each season. One way to promote animal health services to mobile and dispersed populations is through Community Based Animal Health Workers (CAHWs): livestock keepers that have been trained and provided with a basic animal health kit, and who work at community level in permanent connection with a veterinarian.

“We are part of the solution”

Today, herders are not only asking for services for their livestock, or rights to their lands. They demand for their recognition as citizens of a wider society: “Pastoralism is more than livestock production; it is a way of life, a culture and an identity. We pastoralists are citizens and our rights, culture and customary institutions should be recognised and respected.”

Rather than regarding pastoralists as a problem, policy makers should see them as a major ally and indispensable contributor to the safe governance and sustainable management of sparsely populated, marginal areas. Efforts to support pastoralism need to be focused on the local area or territory (which might involve a regional framework), rather than on national-level policies. They need to build on the pastoralists’ own knowledge, traditional organisations and social networks; recognise and protect customary landtenure rights; and support herders’ mobility also through the provision of adapted services.

Margherita Gomarasca ( and Michele Nori ( work for and collaborate with Vétérinaires Sans Frontières International.