Africa / Animal Production / Drought / ILRI / Pastoralism

Killing the ‘crisis narrative’ in African pastoralism

Dan Murphy, a food-industry journalist and commentator, picked up the story we recently ran on a Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference, held at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and says the following in Drovers CattleNetwork.

‘Dry, dusty, deserted.

‘Those would be apt descriptions of the photos and descriptions most Americans are exposed to when on those rare occasions they pay attention to the problems of livestock producers—herders—in sub-Saharan Africa, that vast swath of semi-arid grassland and savannah between the continent’s northern deserts and its tropical rainforests. We’re almost conditioned to assume that a scraggly flock of goats, or a group of withered cattle trudging across a barren landscape is the extent of the region’s so-called livestock industry.

‘No grass, no water, no hope.

‘And all that (alleged) despair and poverty is mere background noise to an increasing drumbeat from eco-activists touting the notion that cattle production anywhere is cause for concern: A source of greenhouse gases, a plague on ecosystem sustainability and a threat to the nutritional and economic well-being of the entire planet.

‘Now, an international conference on the future of livestock production in Africa beginning today in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, at the headquarters of the International Livestock Research Institute aims to change all that, to shift what the organizers so aptly call “the crisis narrative” about “pastoralists” in Africa. . . .

‘In its mission statement, the conference organizers state that, “Pastoralists are changing the way they live and work in response to new opportunities and threats, revealing the resilience [they] have demonstrated for millennia. This often misunderstood and marginalized community is re-positioning itself to make the most of the East African economy.”

‘Livestock herders’ access to resources, options for mobility and opportunities for marketing are all rapidly evolving. Is there, the organizers of this conference ask, opportunity for a productive, vibrant, market-oriented livelihood system or will pastoralist areas remain a backwater of underdevelopment, marginalization and severe poverty?

‘“The pastoralist way of life—synonymous with irreversible decline, “crises’ and aid rescues—is poorly understood,” the organizers declare. “And while the words ‘pastoralism’ and ‘crisis’ have become fused in the minds of many, there are positive signs that debunk the usual reportage of pastoralists depicted as insecure, vulnerable and destitute. A more accurate understanding of the significant and complex changes happening within pastoralist areas has been obscured by the perpetuated myths of pastoralism in crisis.”

‘Here are a few comments from the participants in the conference that should resonate with U.S. livestock sector participants:

‘“There is a moment now for evidence-based research to inform policy. Governments and the Africa Union [are taking pastoralism seriously, as a driver of growth.” —Ian Scoones, Future Agricultures Consortium and the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University

‘“Many crop farmers in Africa’s drying regions are starting to incorporate more livestock, a trend that has been occurring in West Africa for the last two or three decades. The consequences and implications of climate change are therefore of paramount importance to pastoral livelihoods, production systems and landscapes.” —Polly Ericksen of the International Livestock Research institute

‘“We must deal with increasing demographic pressure, growing rural-to-urban migration, insecurity and lack of a cross-border migration framework if pastoralism is to survive. The irony is that as we open up more and more rangelands by providing roads and other basic infrastructure, more people will move in, which will reduce pastoral mobility even more. We need to be consistent and relentless in our policy messages.” —David Nkedianye, a Masai herder in Kenya’s Kitengela rangeland region who heads an NGO called “Reto-o-Reto” (“I help you, you help me” in the Maa language)

‘Often, we tend to view the business of livestock production and the challenges of raising cattle, goats and dairy animals in Africa as something far removed from the experience of anyone in North America. But despite the geographic distances, the priorities outlined at the African conference are both timely and universal. . . .

‘Despite their vastly different cultural heritage, the often unstable politics across the region and the sheer magnitude of the socio-economic challenges facing Africa’s pastoralists, at the end of the day, their problems are our problems. Their challenges are our challenges. And ultimately, their success is tied to ours as a powerful antidote to changing the “crisis narrative that plagues all producers, no matter where they live.’

Read the whole article at Drovers CattleNetwork: Commentary: Killing the crisis narrative, 23 March 2011.

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