Who are pastoralists?

Pastoralists are people who depend for their living primarily on livestock. They inhabit those parts of the world where the potential for crop cultivation is limited due to lack of rainfall, steep terrain or extreme temperatures. In order to optimally exploit the meager and seasonally variable resources of their environment and to provide food and water for their animals, many pastoralists are nomadic or semi-nomadic.

The type of livestock pastoralists keep varies according to area, and includes sheep, goats, cattle and camels, but also yaks and horses in Central Asia, buffalo in South Asia, llamas and alpacas in South America, and reindeer in the Palearctic region. An important characteristic of pastoralists is their close relationship with their animals. The identity of pastoralists is based on the close association with their livestock that forms a key component of their social and ritual life. By keeping animals under conditions that are close to the wild, but giving them the benefit of protection and health care, pastoralists represent a cultural counterpoint to industrialized animal production in the west.

There is no reliable information available on the number of pastoralists worldwide. According to one estimate, there are around 17.3 million pastoralists in Africa, 3.4 million in the Middle East and South Asia and no more than 2 million in Central Asia (Sandford, 1983).

It is widely recognized by ecologists that pastoralism represents a sustainable method of utilizing certain types of ecosystems, such as deserts, steppes and certain mountain areas. In fact, continued utilization of the world's arid lands very much depends on viable pastoral systems. Nevertheless, pastoralists have come under pressure worldwide due to a variety of circumstances that include population growth, environmental degradation, and unsound development and trade policies. Especially encroachment of agriculture on their grazing territories and the privatization of former communally owned land is undermining their existence.

The League for Pastoral Peoples is an advocacy and support group for pastoralists who depend on common property resources. Its goals are to:

bulletRaise awareness among the public about the global plight of pastoralists.
bulletImprove the image of pastoralists among government and development organizations by emphasizing their role in sustainable food production in arid areas, in preserving indigenous livestock breeds, and as stewards of an intricate indigenous knowledge system on survival in the arid zone.
bulletProvide information on the situation of pastoralists.
bulletFacilitate interaction between pastoralists on one hand and government, NGOs on the other hand.
bulletOrganize and implement pastoral development projects.
bulletAct as a pressure group for the rights of pastoralists on an international level.

Threats to pastoralists

Many pastoralists have a history of strained relations with central authorities, sometimes leading to outright hostilities. In general, they have little political clout and influence, because they inhabit remote areas and are widely dispersed. With the births of modern nation states, their situation has deteriorated further. Borders interfere with their traditional migration patterns. Government policies usually favor settled farming and crop production and are implemented at the expense of pastoral existences. Independent of policies, population growth has led to great scarcity of resources in the semi-arid areas that pastoralists inhabit. In particular, the following factors can be made responsible for the demise of pastoralism.

Expansion of crop cultivation

All over the world, former pastoral grazing grounds are being alienated for crop cultivation. An especially dramatic example is provided by the Barabaig, semi-nomadic cattle breeders in Tanzania, who have lost more than 40,000 hectares to a wheat-growing project funded by the Canadian government (Lane, 1994).

Shortening of the fallow period

In former times, fields were often left fallow for at least part of the year and pastoralists were welcomed by farmers for the fertilizing effect of the manure of the animals. With the arrival of irrigation, making more than one crop possible, as well as of chemical fertilizers, pastoralists are pushed out of the farming areas and have literally no place to go. This has been documented for the Rebari and Bharwad in Gujarat/India as well as the Raika in Rajasthan (Cincotta and Pangare, 1993; Köhler-Rollefson 1992).

Irrigation and hydroelectric projects

Building dams to generate power or to increase agricultural productivity of low rainfall areas is a favorite policy that usually deprives pastoralists of their traditional grazing areas. A current example is provided by plans of the government in Angola to dam the Kunene River for generating hydroelectric power. This will be at the expense of the Himba, semi-nomadic cattle herders who will lose 200 square kilometers of land. (Lane, 1998) (For further information, see the websites of the International Rivers Network www.irn.org or Survival International at www.survival.org.uk).

Wildlife parks

There are many instances where pastoralists are suddenly prevented from using their traditional pastures, because these are declared nature protection areas or wildlife parks. This happened to the Gujar, migratory buffalo keepers in Uttar Pradesh, when the Rajaji National Park was created. Because a local NGO supported their case, an agreement was finally reached where the Gujars were given responsibility for managing the resources of the park (Husain et al., 1999) The Raika camel pastoralists in Rajasthan face a similar predicament. Access to the Aravalli range, their traditional summer grazing grounds, has been curtailed since the area became designated as a protected area (Kumbhalgarh Reserve). (Köhler-Rollefson, 1992) In Tanzania, the Maasai have been evacuated from the Serengeti Plains but have been given joint use of the Ngorongoro Conservation area (Mc Cabe et al., 1997).

Privatization of former common pastures

In traditional pastoral societies, land is not owned individually, but represents communal property. In Kenya, a "group ranch" programme was imposed on the Maasai that conferred individual land ownership to groups living together. This has now resulted in most of the land being owned individually and being used for maize cultivation (Galaty, 1992).

Sedentarization projects

Many countries feel that nomadic pastoralism is a backward way of life and that traditional pastoral animal husbandry techniques are inefficient. Under the banner of socioeconomic improvement and modernization, they therefore attempt to settle their nomadic populations by providing them with plots of land and housing. This has happened for instance in Sudan, Israel and Jordan.

Food aid and drilling of wells

Often, settlement is also "voluntary" and occurs as a result of processes that have made a pastoral existence impossible. Furthermore, well-intended outside interventions such as food-aid and drilling of wells, seduce pastoralists to give up their way of life and remain in one spot. According to several studies, settled pastoralists are more likely to suffer from malnutrition than their nomadic relatives, although they have better access to health care facilities (Fratkin, 1998).


bulletCincotta, R. and Pangare (eds.) 1993. Pastoralism and pastoral migration in Gujarat. Institute of Rural Management, Anand (India).
bulletFratkin, E. 1997. Pastoralism: Governance and development issues. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:235-261.
bulletGalaty, J.G. 1992. "The land is yours": Social and economic factors in the privatization, sub-division and sale of Maasai ranches. Nomadic Peoples 30:26-40.
bulletHussain, T., Bibi, P. and Kaushal, P. 1999. We are all the same 'kudrat' - Community forest management in Rajaji National Park. Forest, Trees and People 38:35-38.
bullet Köhler-Rollefson, I. 1992. The Raika dromedary breeders of Rajasthan: A pastoral system in crisis. Nomadic Peoples 30:74-83.
bullet Lane, C. 1994. Pastures lost: Alienation of Barabaig land in the context of land policy and legislation in Tanzania. Nomadic Peoples 34/35:81-94.
bullet Lane, C. 1998. Damming the Himba out of existence: Of cattle and camels. Pastoralist Newsletter 1(3):10-11.
bullet Mc Cabe, J.T. 1997. Risk and uncertainty among the Maasai of the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania: A case study in economic change. Nomadic Peoples n.s. 1(1): 54-65.