Expert Opinion

How can pastoralists become displaced when they lead traditionally mobile lifestyles?

Pastoralism is a global phenomenon, common in the arid and semi-arid areas of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Highlands of Latin America and in Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Mongolia. Pastoralist lifestyles vary, but they all share three characteristics: some degree of mobility, a livelihood based on livestock, and a special attachment to land, resources – particularly grazing areas and water – and markets.

Quick facts:

  • Pastoral production takes place on an estimated 25% of the world’s land
  • In Africa, where 66% of land is used for pastoral production, nomadic pastoralism is recognised as part of the continent’s cultural heritage
  • Pastoralists account for 10% of the world’s meat production, with a billion head of livestock supporting some 200 million households.

While pastoral communities produce a significant proportion of the world’s meat, pastoralism holds a deep cultural and historical significance. It is a way of life where the identity of the individuals and communities that practise it and their relationship to their land and livestock are intrinsically linked. As a displaced Turkana elder told the researchers in Ngaremara, northern Kenya: “What the town is for you, this land is for us. What the bank is for you, our animals are for us.”

The ‘tipping point’ of pastoralist displacement

The extent to which pastoralists can become internally displaced is a subject of debate. It is a reality, however, that changes in pastoralists’ external environment – due to effects of climate change, drought, insecurity or conflict – may lead to decreasing access to land, resources and markets. This will, over time, cause pastoralists’ natural living space to shrink or to become inaccessible. When their coping capacities are exhausted and “normal” migration is no longer possible, pastoralists fall into a gradual process of impoverishment and become internally displaced.

Poverty among pastoralists is intrinsically linked to loss of livestock and displacement. It puts their safety and security at stake, strips them of their social networks, cuts them off from their livelihoods and production systems, separates families and disrupts education. “I beg for food and I am thankful for the merciful people who give me something to eat,” one displaced pastoralist woman said. She was a widow whose family had lost all of their livestock in 2011.

There is a ‘tipping point’ at which pastoralists fall from voluntary migration into forced displacement. The line between voluntary movement and forced movement is not always easy to draw. They should be considered as two poles at each end of a continuum, ranging from “normal” nomadic movement and adaptive migration to forced displacement. This continuum is characterised by growing pressures and fewer choices, with a steady increase in people’s vulnerabilities and a decrease in their ability to recover from changes in their external environment.

This lowered resilience creates special needs and puts basic human rights, such as those to food and water, health, physical security and education, at risk. It also means that most pastoralists will not have enough rebound capacity to restore their lives. “I have two cattle and few goats left. I can barely survive,” said one displaced herder.

Essentially, the story of internally displaced pastoralists is a story of impoverishment, decreasing resilience and disenfranchisement of their human rights.

What measures can be taken to help internally displaced pastoralists?

The study articulates what an appropriate response to pastoralist displacement might be, by recognising the multi-causal nature of pastoralist displacement and advocating for an integrated response across the humanitarian and development fields. It emphasises that ending displacement and finding long-term solutions for pastoralists involves a process of reversing impoverishment and bolstering the resilience of such communities in a changing external environment.

Displaced pastoralists share many needs with other IDPs but they also have specific ones, primarily related to loss of livestock and the inability to access their living space, many of which go unaddressed due to gaps in the national laws and policies. Advocacy must therefore be undertaken to ensure that pastoralists and their rights are taken into account in the development and implementation of relevant legal and policy frameworks.

IDPs themselves play a critical role in the search for long-term solutions to end their displacement. They have a right to choose options based on the information available to them. While some displaced pastoralists may choose to settle, others may choose mobile lifestyles, a return to pastoralism in its various forms, or diversification and alternative livelihood opportunities. Based on these choices, governments, humanitarians and development actors can take measure to assist which may include ensuring access to land, markets and education; restocking options and subsidised microcredit schemes in the aftermath of droughts; vocational training and the establishment of social protection schemes.

This newly published study aims to shine a light on this largely overlooked issue both highlights and invites the need for more innovative thinking on internal displacement.

For more information, read the full report: On the margin: Kenya’s pastoralists