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Reframing the pastoral narrative: Ancient mobile herding strategies to make a comeback in a hotter world

Fulani boy in Niger herds his family's animals

Fulani boy in Niger herds his family’s animals (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

Mobility to unlock scattered food, feed, water and other scarce and scattered essential resources is a human strategy as old as humankind itself—and one that remains key for pastoral livestock herders the world over. As the world warms and its natural resources become ever scarcer, it would profit all of us to take a long hard look at how livestock herders track those resources over time and space, and how their movement and that of their animal herds helps them stay resilient in the face of some of the earth’s most unforgiving, and now increasingly unpredictable and extreme, climates.

It appears the rest of us are going to need to adopt strategies for resilience sooner rather than later. Last Thursday, reports Polly Ericksen, scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), was a red letter day. On that day, 9 May 2013, the level of emissions of carbon dioxide reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million, a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.

Red Letter Day
The new measurement came from analyzers atop Mauna Loa, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii that has long been ground zero for monitoring the worldwide trend on carbon dioxide, or CO2. . . . Carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million was first seen in the Arctic last year, and had also spiked above that level in hourly readings at Mauna Loa. But the average reading for an entire day surpassed that level at Mauna Loa for the first time in the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday.’ — Heat-trapping gas passes milestone, raising fears, New York Times, 10 May 2013

Carbon dioxide, of course, is the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. So what do we know about what will happen as the world’s average temperatures rise with the increasing amounts of carbon trapped in our atmosphere? Well, not much, as even our most sophisticated and integrated models are unable to forecast likely changes after a certain threshold has been passed. But what we can surmise is grim, as the following plausible scenarios illustrate.

One degree, two degrees, three degrees, four . . .
With a global average rise of 2ºC, ‘Greenland’s glaciers and some of the lower lying islands would start to disappear. At 3ºC higher the Arctic would be ice-free all summer, the Amazon rainforest would begin to dry out and extreme weather patterns would become the norm. An increase of 4ºC would see the oceans rise drastically. Then comes the twilight zone of climate change, if the global temperature rises again by another degree. Part of once temperate regions could become uninhabitable, while humans fight each other for the world’s remaining resources. The sixth degree is what is called the doomsday scenario as oceans become marine wastelands, deserts expand and catastrophic events become more common.’ — Six degrees could change the world, National Geographic, 2012

Studies written by scientists at 14 of the 15 CGIAR centres and compiled and published last year by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) (Impacts of climate change on the agricultural and aquatic systems and natural resources within the CGIAR’s mandate, 2012) provide a snapshot of how climate change is likely to affect key food crops and livestock farming and natural resources in poor countries, where these staple foods and resources remain the backbone not only of food security but also of national economies.

While nothing is certain, a few things are probable, writes Philip Thornton, scientist at CCAFS and ILRI and leader of the research study. First and foremost is that old-fashioned foods and food production strategies are likely to make some major comebacks.

Crops and animals till now neglected by major research initiatives, and now considered ‘old-fashioned’ by many, are likely to play an increasingly important role on global food production once again. Drought-resistant camels and goats, ‘famine foods’ such as heat-tolerant cassava and millet, and dual-purpose crops such as protein-rich cowpea (aka black-eyed peas) and groundnut that feed people and animals alike are all likely to come back to the fore in regions with drying or more unpredictable climates. In some drying regions, smallholders will be forced to switch from crop growing to livestock raising, and/or from raising dairy cows to raising dairy or other goats. — As the cooking pot turns: Staple crop and animal foods are being ‘recalibrated’ for a warmer world, ILRI News Blog, 1 Nov 2012

So herding livestock, the so-called ‘pastoral’ food production system, is likely to become much more important as we warm the globe. But as Mike Shanahan, press officer for the International Institute for Environment and Development (UK), reports this week, if we’re going to increasingly rely on livestock herding across the world’s current vast drylands, and across the lands now drying up, to help feed our increasingly crowded planet and support the lives and livelihoods of its poorest people, we’d better start rethinking the ways we perceive, talk about and approach pastoralism, now a neglected sector in many fast-modernizing countries, which tend to view it as ‘backward’.

Shanahan recently investigated how media reports on pastoralism in India, China and Kenya. ‘These policy narratives overlook both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems.

The narratives ignore the ways that mobile herding can increase people’s resilience in a changing climate. They also ignore the three E’s—the economic value of pastoralism, the environmental benefits that herding brings to rangelands and the equity that should be at heart of good policymaking.

‘Once upon a time, not so long ago,’ says Shanahan, ‘we were all mobile. Movement was what enabled our ancestors to track resources that were here today, gone tomorrow. In parts of the world where water, pasture or good hunting are not constantly available, mobility is still the key that unlocks scattered resources. It is the key to resilience. And as the climate changes, this ancient strategy could become more important.

‘Yet in many countries, governments marginalise mobile pastoralists and would prefer them to settle instead of roaming the land. Dominant policy narratives cast pastoralism as a backwards, unproductive activity that takes place in marginal fragile areas, where unpredictable rainfall leads people to overgraze and damage the land.

Media stories both contribute to and reflect the dominant policy narrative around pastoralism.

‘In Kenya, pastoralists feature mostly in ‘bad news’ stories of conflict and drought. They appear vulnerable and lacking in agency. Stories make almost no mention of the benefits that pastoralists bring.

‘In China, the media presented pastoralists as the cause of environmental degradation and as (generally happy) beneficiaries of government investment and settlement projects.

‘In India, newspapers tended to portray pastoralists with more pity, as people whose rights to grazing land had been taken away and whose livelihoods were at risk as pastures dwindle and locally resilient livestock breeds disappear. . . .

Yet opportunities to reframe pastoralism abound. In Kenya, for instance, an alternative narrative could show how the new constitution could work best for the drylands and their communities. In India, an alternative narrative could show how herding is part of the wider dryland agriculture system that can increase food security in the context of climate change. In China, an alternative narrative can relate how support for pastoralism can increase food security and better manage rangelands for economic benefits. . . .’

Read the whole article by Mike Shanahan on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems: Pastoralists in the media: Three E’s please, 13 May 2013.

See Mike Shanahan’s full research paper or a four-page summary.

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