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Foolhardy? Or just hardy? New project tackles climate change and livestock markets in the Horn

If only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the tropical midday sun, what shall we say of Americans in Alabama and Kenya setting out to learn from, and support, sales of livestock in the hot and drying badlands extending across the Horn of Africa?

This is what Peter Little, of Emory University, and Polly Ericksen, at Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute, (ILRI), and others at Kenya’s Pwani University and Ethiopia Addis Ababa University are working to do in a new four-year project ambitiously tackling both climate change and livestock markets in the drier, degraded and mostly neglected drylands of the Horn, occupied today mostly by bushes and shrubs, semi-desert grasses, dunes and rocks—and, of course, pastoral and agro-pastoral people and their livestock.

Pastoralist with herd

In 2011, the most severe drought in decades took a terrible toll on the rugged people and livestock of the Horn of Africa; pastoralist communities were among the hardest hit (photo on Flickr by Katherine Bundra Roux / International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society).

In the midst of drought and conflict, and with precious little infrastructure or services to support them, the rugged livestock-herding peoples of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya maintain a thriving livestock trade within the Horn. How do they do it? How do they get their animals to market? How do they manage to feed and water them along the way? How much do they get paid for their animals? Who are the middlemen? What roles do women play? These are some of the questions this new project aims to answer.

What is known is that the Muslim’s annual five-day pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca is what drives much of the livestock trade in Africa’s Horn, as some two million live animals from pastoral lands in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are transported across the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia each year to be ritually sacrificed to feed the millions of pilgrims.

Peter Little

Anthropologist Peter Little, who directs a Program in Development Studies at Emory University (USA) and leads a USAID-supported Collaborative Research Support Project on Livestock and Climate Change; Little led a review of ILRI’s pastoral research in 2010–2011 (photo credit: Emory University).

‘“It’s big business, but it’s unclear how much small-scale livestock producers in East Africa really benefit from the growing demand for their products in the Middle East,” says Emory anthropologist Peter Little. . . .

‘Little, who has been studying the region’s pastoralists for three decades, recently received an additional $700,000 from the Livestock-Climate Change (LCC) Collaborative Research Support Program to continue working on a joint project in the region. The LCC program, based at Colorado State University, was established in 2010 through an agreement with the US Agency for International Development. . . .

‘“One thing we will be looking at is how the warming of East Africa is creating different kinds of disease vectors, affecting both livestock and humans,” says Little, who also directs Emory’s new Development Studies program. The project ultimately aims to increase income and food security in the extremely vulnerable Horn of Africa. The region is confronting yet another drought disaster and violent conflict between Kenya and Somalia. “It’s a challenge working in the Horn of Africa on many levels,” Little says. “But the research questions are exciting, and so is the potential to have an impact. . . .’

Polly Ericksen

ILRI’s Polly Ericksen (photo by Anita Gosh). Ericksen has a background in environmental, anthropological and agricultural research, with recent experience in the vulnerability of food systems to global environmental change. Her chief research interests concern the interactions among human well-being, environmental services, land use change, and climate in the tropics.

With post-graduate degrees in economics (MS) and soil science (PhD), before coming to ILRI in 2010, Ericksen has worked for the Alternatives to Slash and Burn program at the tropical rainforest margins, for Catholic Relief Services, for the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction, at Columbia University, where she analyzed institutional and policy environments in which climate information will be applied and used in Africa, and for the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

ILRI’s Polly Ericksen agrees with Little on that. Ericksen is this week organizing and hosting at ILRI’s Nairobi campus more than 5o dryland experts from eastern and southern Africa, who are planning a new CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Agricultural Systems. This program will focus on two kinds of dryland systems, those that are better endowed and can be ‘intensified’ to increase food production and those that are highly vulnerable to shocks and require improved risk management and more sustainable and efficient use of scarce natural resources.

To some people’s surprise, the experts at Ericksen’s CGIAR and partner workshop appear to be agreeing that the latter, more vulnerable, drylands, far from being negligible locales for agricultural research, are actually promising in terms of making research impacts.

It appears from recent analyses’, says Ericksen, ‘that some of today’s dryland hotspots in the Horn and elsewhere have some of the greatest potential for research impacts.’

Read the whole article at Emory in the World Magazine: Tackling climate change and livestock markets in the Horn of Africa, spring 2012 issue.

Read more about the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and more on ILRI’s news blogs (below) about the three-day planning workshop for this program, which ends today:

ILRI News Blog: Africa’s vast eastern and southern drylands get new attention–and support–from agricultural researchers, 6 Jun 2012.

ILRI Clippings Blog: Supporting dryland pastoralism with eco-conservancies, livestock insurance and livestock-based drought interventions, 5 June 2012.

ILRI Clippings Blog: CGIAR Drylands Research Program sets directions for East and Southern Africa, 4 Jun 2012.

People, Livestock and Environment at ILRI Blog: Taming Africa’s drylands to produce food, 5 Jun 2012.

People, Livestock and Environment at ILRI Blog: Collaboration in drylands research will achieve greater impact, 5 Jun 2012.

Images of the CRP Dryland Systems inception workshop for East and southern Africa, 5-7 Jun 2012 are posted here on ILRI’s Flickr site.

Slide presentations made at the workshop are available on ILRI’s Slideshare site.

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