Tag Archives: pastoralism

Drought and resilience: some lessons from Kenya

I recently wrote an article for The Conversation together with Tahira Mohamed on the drought situation in Kenya. We’d spent a few weeks in Isiolo and Marsabit counties exploring ‘resilience projects’ alongside local responses by pastoralists. The disconnect was extreme and many people running projects admitted that there was a problem.

Perhaps not to the same extent, but Zimbabwe faces some of the same issues, with projects designed in good faith having very little impact on the ground. We identified three recurrent issues- misplaced narratives, poor project design and ignoring the social context. Sound familiar?

The article is reproduced below, and for more you can also check out a series of three blogs on the PASTRES website (here, here and here) where some of the themes are expanded upon.

I think there are some important lessons from northern Kenya for addressing ‘drought’ responses in Zimbabwe, as there were many parallels with what we find in our study sites (see the blog series from last year). Although it has been a relatively good season in Zimbabwe this year, this does not mean that drought won’t strike again soon and resilience in rural communities is always needed.

Kenya drought: Pastoralists suffer despite millions of dollars used to protect them – what went wrong?

A young herder grazes cattle on dwindling pasture in the drylands of Kenya. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

Across the arid landscape of northern Kenya, roadside signs proclaim projects aimed at creating “resilience” among pastoralist communities. This is a region where frequent droughts, animal disease, insecurity and structural exclusion all affect pastoral livelihoods.

Resilience – the capacity to transform or to recover quickly from challenges – is the idea behind the many externally funded projects and hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past few decades.

Resilience projects across the drylands often encourage pastoralists – usually working together in groups – to “modernise” their production or get out of livestock keeping completely. Projects include livestock breed improvement, reseeding pastures, creating fodder banks, upgrading market facilities or offering livestock insurance. Such projects are combined with investments in water resources and roads, as well as an array of “alternative livelihoods” projects.

The value of this approach is under scrutiny amid one of the most severe droughts of the past century in northern Kenya. Over 2.5 million livestock have already perished for lack of food and water, and human lives are threatened. At least 4.5 million people are in need of external assistance. Decades of investment in “resilience” clearly hasn’t been working. The question now is whether there are different ways of supporting pastoralists’ ability to prepare for and respond to droughts and other shocks.

Over the past four years, we have been studying how Borana pastoralists in Isiolo county in northern Kenya manage drought, conflict and other uncertainties. In recent years, the area has suffered recurrent droughts, alongside locust and animal disease outbreaks.

Pastoralist livelihoods are increasingly vulnerable. Land is being encroached from all sides by neighbouring groups and conservation areas expanded. Building resilience has become increasingly essential.

Our research has pointed to the importance of local networks of mutual support, solidarity and redistribution that enable pastoralists to adapt to changing circumstances. These types of “moral economy” practices could be the basis for drought preparedness and response.

We have concluded from our research that, instead of the deluge of external interventions, ways must be found to build resilience from below, drawing on local practices and networks.

Why top-down projects haven’t worked

Our research has found that there are three main reasons that existing project interventions are failing to protect populations from recurrent drought and other shocks.

Misplaced narratives: Behind these interventions is the idea that pastoralism is outdated and that alternatives to livestock keeping must be found. Since the colonial era, controlling livestock movements and settling pastoralists have been central to policy prescriptions. Calls to encourage pastoralists to change their ways are always accentuated during and after major droughts.

Pastoralists, the argument goes, would do better if they settled in one place and farmed. The biases against pastoralism are very evident in education programmes, water investments for irrigated farming and livelihood diversification projects outside the pastoral economy.

Yet, despite the drought and the loss of animals, pastoralism can make the best use of highly variable dryland environments, where alternative ways to make a living are extremely limited. Supporting rather than abandoning pastoral systems makes much more sense.

Poor project design: All too often, development projects don’t fit the local context. Fancy new livestock markets promoted by donors are frequently in the wrong place, while dispersed “bush markets” are more accessible and cheaper to use. Many boreholes function for a while, but the cost of repairs is often high and so they fall into disrepair. The roads may go to the wrong places, diverting trade and transport from places that matter.

Not all development efforts are wasted. Take the new A2 highway built by the Chinese from Isiolo to the Ethiopia border town of Moyale and beyond. This has reduced travel times dramatically, allowing hay to be transported for hungry livestock across the region. Also, maintained government boreholes, now often with solar pump facilities, have been essential for keeping animals alive during the drought.

But the idea that resilience can be generated through a technical or financial fix is prevalent. In so many cases the same interventions that failed a few decades before are just being repeated with new branding.

Ignoring the social context: Since devolution in Kenya in 2010, there has been emphasis on decentralised activities led by county governments. Many groups and committees have been established by a plethora of projects. Too often these are focused on implementing an externally designed activity or feeding information upwards. This creates a lot of confusion.

Such projects seldom engage with the social context, involving local networks or mobilising local expertise and experience. Frequently the projects fold as soon as the funds dry up.

Towards resilience from below

In the drylands, drought is part of normal life in a highly variable environment. Climate change is making matters worse, as droughts are more prolonged and the pattern of rainfall changes. And shrinking access to land and water due to encroachment of other land uses make drought impacts harsher.

Yet, as our research has shown, herders have a long-established repertoire of drought responses. This is not just passive “coping”, but is well planned.

Pastoralists’ practices combine livestock movement, sharing and distribution of animals through loans, splitting herds and flocks, supplementary feeding and watering, careful herding, negotiating access to farmland or conservation areas, shifting species compositions, selective marketing of animals, and diversification to other income sources to support the herd or flock.

Rather than creating new resilience projects, separate from local practices, why not build on these responses?

Pastoralism, as described by researcher Emery Roe, can be seen as a “critical infrastructure”, where “high reliability professionals” ensure that the system doesn’t collapse. Such professionals are central to pastoral systems. They connect herders through diverse social networks; for example with motorbike transporters, those who offer credit, and local specialists such as healers and forecasters.

Our work in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia is exploring more deeply who these “high reliability professionals” are and what they do to transform very uncertain conditions into a more stable, reliable supply of goods and services, so helping to avert disasters.

Tahira Shariff Mohamed, PhD candidate, Institute of Development Studies and Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why COP27 needs a more sophisticated debate about livestock and climate change

As the climate conference, COP27, kicks of in Sharm el Sheik in Egypt debates about agriculture and land use will be centre stage. And amongst these discussions the role of livestock in the future of food and agricultural systems will be hotly debated.

Unfortunately, many of these debates are poorly informed and misleading, frequently hitting the wrong target. There are strong arguments for reducing the impact of livestock farming in places like the Amazon where expansion of pastures or crops for fodder is encroaching on valuable rainforest areas. Equally there are good reasons for many in the rich West to reduce the consumption of meat and milk from high input industrial systems.

But such arguments do not extend to all livestock everywhere. Misleading policy conclusions arise from aggregated statistics, which often miss out on extensive, smallholder and pastoralist livestock systems. For example, the well-respected data and graphics provider Our World in Data provide easily-consumed data for journalists that highlight livestock as the big villain of climate change. But these data are based on studies that do not account for most extensive livestock systems, focusing instead only on ‘commercially viable farms.’

So, in thinking about climate mitigation measures, we need to ask, which livestock, where? And always avoid being trapped by simplistic, generalising narratives that can be misleading and dangerous. This is why the PASTRES programme that works in six countries across three continents released the report – Are livestock always bad for the planet? The report digs into the data and questions the standard narrative.

In particular, ten flaws in standard approaches to climate assessments of livestock are highlighted and are discussed in a short briefing, available in multiple languages. Most such assessments use so-called life cycle assessments, but too often the data are estimated based on emission factors that make no sense in most outside intensive, industrial livestock systems. Furthermore, we have to ask whether extensive systems are in fact ‘additional’ compared to ‘natural’ systems, where wild animals rather than domesticated livestock roam. And when thinking about emissions, we have to be careful when equating methane (from animals) with carbon dioxide (from fossil fuel intensive industries) as they have very different effects on global heating.

Presenting all livestock as a villain and making the case for radical shifts of diet and land use everywhere – even going so far as promoting the idea of farm-free futures where protein is derived from large fermentation vats – makes little sense. Such a techno-utopian vision would undermine many people’s livelihoods, destroy local economies and would likely have little positive impact on the environment in places where livestock are an integrated part of sustainable agro-ecosystems.

Indeed, despite proclaiming otherwise, such positions may accentuate climate injustice, opening opportunities for further concentration of food systems, while fostering exclusionary forms of conservation or ‘rewilding’. In so doing they undermine the very people who should be at the forefront of creating climate-friendly agricultural systems, such as pastoralists and extensive livestock keepers who live across the world’s rangeland on over half the world’s land surface.

A focus on net-zero targets for carbon removal from land – through reducing livestock use and planting trees, for example – may badly misfire. Trees are vulnerable carbon sources in many environments because of fire risk and may be less good at capturing and retaining carbon than grasslands, supported by careful livestock grazing.

Mass tree planting on rangelands can result in displacement of people and their livestock, as plantation crops are established and enclosures increase. The rush to plant trees is again being driven by misunderstandings of ecosystems and carbon dynamics in rangeland settings. And such damaging tree planting is being pushed by carbon offset markets that are central to net zero deals, whereby polluting companies in one part of the world can absolve themselves by planting trees elsewhere.    

Addressing climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge for humanity today. COP27 in Egypt is a vital political moment. But in our eagerness to meet the challenge, we must be careful about false and misleading solutions that can result in heightened injustices. Certain types of livestock keeping – in the right places, with the right management – can and should be part of the climate solution.

If you are in Sharm el Sheik, there are lots of events that focus on these issues – see the COP27 Livestock Resources from ILRI. If you are not there (I personally will be amongst the livestock keepers of Matobo in Matabeland South discussing these issues on the ground), then do have a look at some of our PASTRES publications in order to get a more informed view.

Report and briefings in multiple languages: Are livestock always bad for the planet? – Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience – PASTRES

Video: Are livestock always bad for the planet? – YouTube

Article: IDSBulletin_OnlineFirst_García-Dory_Houzer_Scoones.pdf

Primer: Livestock, climate and the politics of resources | Transnational Institute (tni.org)

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COP26: why a more sophisticated debate on livestock and the climate is needed

COP 26 Blue Zone, Glasgow (Ian Scoones)

Last week I was in Glasgow at COP26, shuttling between events in the Blue Zone and the fringe across the city. It was overwhelming, with a cacophony of conflicting voices and views.

The first week including a flood of announcements on coal, methane and forests. Ambitious targets were set and large numbers were bandied around. Meanwhile the negotiations continue behind closed doors as protestors marched over the weekend, urging more radical and concrete action.

I was with a delegation of pastoralists, members of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous and Peoples and Pastoralists network. We were aiming to highlight the more complex story around the links between livestock and climate change – going beyond the standard narrative that all meat and milk is bad.

WAMIP sheep for the climate action, Glasgow (Ian Scoones)

We hosted a photo exhibition exploring climate change and uncertainty in different parts of the world, and at another event with Nourish Scotland discussed the future of livestock systems under climate change with Scottish farmers and food groups. Our ‘sheep for the climate’ action gathered a group (with some fine Hebridean sheep) in Govan dry docks to highlight our recent report, which asks the question, are livestock always bad for the planet?.

An article in The Conversation summarised some of the main points and is reproduced below (under CC license). Also, do check out the full report, plus the briefings and information sheets (in eight languages) at this link: https://pastres.org/livestock-report/  

Cows and cars should not be conflated in climate change debates

Cattle driven into the Kenyan capital Nairobi for new pasture amid a severe drought navigate through city traffic. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies

With world leaders gathered for the COP26 summit in Glasgow, there is much talk of methane emissions and belching cows. The Global Methane Pledge, led by the US and EU and now with many country signatories, aims to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. This is seen as a “quick win” to reduce global warming and will have major implications for livestock production.

Livestock have become the villain of climate change. Some researchers claim that 14.5% of all human-derived emissions come from livestock, either directly or indirectly. There have been widespread calls for radical shifts in livestock production and diet globally to address climate chaos. But which livestock, where? As a new report I co-authored argues, it is vitally important to differentiate between production systems.

Not all milk and meat is the same. Extensive, often mobile, pastoral systems – of the sort commonly seen across the African continent, as well as in Asia, Latin America and Europe – have hugely different effects to contained, intensive industrial livestock production.

Yet, in standard narratives about diet and production shifts, all livestock are lumped in together. Cows are misleadingly equated with polluting cars and beef with coal. The simplistic “all livestock are bad” narrative is promoted by campaign organisations, environmental celebrities, rich philanthropists and policymakers alike. Inevitably, it dominates media coverage. However, a much more sophisticated debate is needed.

Delving into data

Our report delves into the data and highlights the problems with using aggregate statistics in assessing the impacts of livestock on the global climate.

Some types of livestock production, especially those using industrial systems, are certainly highly damaging to the environment. They generate significant greenhouse gas emissions and cause serious water pollution. They also add to deforestation through demand for feed and expanding grazing areas, for example. And, reducing the amount of animal-source foods in diets, whether in the global north or south, makes much sense, both for the environment and for people’s health.

But industrial systems are only one type of livestock production. And aggregate emission figures do not pick up the nuances of this reality. Looking across life-cycle assessments – a technique widely used to assess the impacts on climate change from different agri-food systems – we found some important gaps and assumptions.

One is that global assessments are overwhelmingly based on data from industrial systems. A frequently quoted paper looking at 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors only focused on “commercially viable” units, mostly from Europe and North America. However, not all livestock are the same, meaning that global extrapolations don’t work.

Research in Kenya, for example, shows how assumptions about emissions from African animals are inaccurate. Such livestock are smaller, have higher quality diets due to selective grazing and have physiologies adapted to their settings. They are not the same as a highly bred animal in a respiration chamber, which is where much of the data on emission factors comes from. Overall, data from extensive systems are massively under-represented. For instance, a review of food production life cycle assessments showed that only 0.4% of such studies were from Africa, where extensive pastoralism is common across large areas.

Another issue is that most such assessments focus on emissions impacts per animal or per unit of product. This creates a distorted picture; the wider costs and benefits are not taken into account. Those in favour of industrialised systems point to the high per animal methane emission from animals eating rough, low-quality forage on open rangelands compared to the potential for improved, methane-reducing feeds in contained systems. This misses the point: a wider, more integrated systems approach must encompass all impacts, but also benefits. For instance, some forms of extensive grazing can potentially increase soil carbon stocks, adding to the already significant store of carbon in open rangelands.

Then there’s the fact that methane and carbon dioxide have different lifetimes in the atmosphere and are not equivalent. Methane is a short-lived but highly potent gas. Carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere effectively forever. Reducing warming can be addressed in the short term by tackling methane emissions, but long term climate change needs to focus on carbon dioxide. It therefore makes a big difference how different greenhouse gases are assessed and how any “global warming potential” is estimated. Simply put, cows and cars are not the same.

It also matters what baseline is used. Pastoral systems may not result in additional emissions from a “natural” baseline. For example, in extensive systems in Africa domestic livestock replace wildlife that emit comparable amounts of greenhouse gases. By contrast, industrial systems clearly generate additional impacts, adding significant environmental costs through methane emissions from production, the importation of feed, the concentration of livestock waste and fossil fuel use in transport and sunk infrastructure.

Climate justice

A more rounded assessment is necessary. Extensive livestock contribute to emissions, but it’s simultaneously true that they produce multiple environmental benefits – including potentially through carbon sequestration, improving biodiversity and enhancing landscapes.

Animal-source foods are also vital for nutrition, providing high density protein and other nutrients, especially for low-income and vulnerable populations and in places where crops cannot be produced.

Across the world livestock – cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks, llamas and more – provide income and livelihoods for many. The world’s rangelands make up over half the world’s land surface and are home to many millions of people.

As countries commit to reducing methane emissions, a more sophisticated debate is urgently needed, lest major injustices result. The danger is that, as regulations are developed, verification procedures approved and reporting systems initiated, livestock systems in Africa and elsewhere will be penalised, with major consequences for poor people’s livelihoods.

Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Living with coronavirus: lessons from pastoralists?

Moments of surprise can expose deep uncertainties and even ignorance. They also uncover issues of contested politics, unequal social relations and the capacities of states and citizens. The unfolding coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is one such moment.

We don’t know what will happen where and when; our normal ways of doing things are massively disrupted, so we must adapt rapidly and radically. This is now life with the coronavirus. For those of us used to predictability and stability, with systems that function continuously and reliably, this sort of uncertainty – now being experienced the world over – is unsettling, provoking anxiety, stress, dislocation and sometimes panic.

But for many people, living in highly variable environments, where shocks of drought, flood, snowfall locust swarms or human and animal disease are regular occurrences, uncertainties are always part of everyday life. Indeed, uncertainties are not only lived with, but lived off, as variability, mobility, flexibility are a central part of livelihood systems.

A question we have been asking in our European Research Council-funded PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Lessons from the Margins) is: Can we learn about how to address uncertainties within wider society – including around disease pandemics – from pastoralists who live with and from uncertainty? What are the logics, practices, strategies and social and political arrangements that allow for adaptive, flexible responses in the face of uncertainty, generating reliability in turbulent times?

Of course, the spread of a global pandemic virus of massively lethal potential is very different to the regular problems faced by pastoralists, whether in mountainous Tibet, lowland Ethiopia or the hills of Sardinia, but there are some themes that emerge from our research that offer pointers. Here we outline four of them.

  1. Multiple knowledges

In navigating uncertainties, pastoralists must engage with multiple sources of knowledge, triangulating between them.

This may involve engaging with expert, scientific knowledge, derived from, say, weather reports; or expert advice on pasture condition or animal disease. It may involve referring to local, embedded traditional knowledges, consulting local experts such as traditional healers, prophets and soothsayers — involving, for example, predictions around the seasons from signs in nature or messages from the spirit world. And it may involve informally-shared updates and locally-rooted practical knowledge from friends, neighbours, relatives and others – these days often via mobile phone through Facebook or WhatsApp groups. These may include information on the state of grazing, the availability of water in a well or the source and quality of forage, for example.

All these sources – formal, informal, real-time, predictive – are combined, reflected upon and, in turn, feed into action. No one source is relied upon alone. This sometimes frustrates development experts who spend huge amounts of money providing sophisticated forecasting systems or satellite monitoring, with user-friendly online mobile interfaces, such as those used in climate/weather forecasting, drought early warning or market information systems. Why is it that these are not used as expected?

It is the same with disease response systems: again, huge efforts are made to predict and prepare, and communicate expert advice. But this must be incorporated into local-embedded knowledges in order to become part of regular practice. Yes, we know that hand-washing and ‘social-distancing’ are important, but such changes only happen when other sources of knowledge and advice combine. Just relying on formal models and accredited expertise (‘the science’) is not enough, in the context of deep uncertainties. Reducing everything to directive risk management is insufficient, and is in fact misleading, as uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance must be embraced.

Pastoralists know this when they hear a climate forecast and an early warning message from the government. Local experience and assessment is an essential complement to the official message. Only when such a message is fully trusted will it be accepted. Today, publics everywhere are grappling with how to respond to public health messages about the risks of COVID-19, along with orders to isolate and quarantine. In these situations, people’s personal, experienced, embodied uncertainties have to be addressed too. Accepting the existence of plural knowledges, even some that may be regarded as ‘unscientific’, is essential when navigating uncertainty and ignorance.

2. How time is experienced

Very often external interventions – whether around disease or drought – are constructed around the notion of an ‘event’ and a timeline around which a staged series of risk management measures are deployed.

Forecasts that assess the probabilities of something happening assume that, based on past experience or modelled futures, we can predict and manage people and things. So, whether it is the varying level of ‘early warning’ alert around a drought or the stages of a response in an unfolding epidemic, the planning system imagines time in a linear, ordered, managed way. The result is the sequential deployment of interventions, managed by ‘emergency’ teams and ‘rapid response’ facilities.

But this isn’t the way most people experience time. The ordered, hierarchical administrative time of crisis and emergency management has to articulate with the more complex flows of lived-with time in everyday life. Whether this is people responding to a pandemic disease in their family or neighbourhood, or a group of pastoralists managing highly variable grazing over far-flung territories with mobile herds, the experience of time may be quite different to those of preparedness planners and early warning system administrators.

How the present, the future and the past are experienced may vary dramatically. Memories of past droughts or disease outbreaks loom large, while expectations of the future are affected by current conditions, as well as deeper cosmologies. Futures are not just simply a linear extension of the present, as in the liberal modernist view, but are deeply intertwined with memories, experiences and histories. These will differ across class, gender, age and race, affecting how different people anticipate and respond. Everyday, unfolding time is therefore a flow, not an event.

For people responding to a disease, or managing mobility and seeking out pasture, time may therefore not be so obviously punctuated with distinct events, and responses may not appear in neat sequences. Instead, a host of other considerations apply – people’s lives, livelihoods, spiritual need, or mental states. All of these can affect what is done when, and by whom.

3. Reliable systems

Uncertainties provide major challenges to standardised systems that assume stability. Following Emery Roe, we can understand pastoral systems as ‘critical infrastructures’, with the objective of reliably delivering desired outputs (milk, meat, hides, services and overall wellbeing) in the context of multiple uncertainties. Just as an energy supply system aims to keep the lights on, and a health system aims to provide effective healthcare, pastoralists also must generate reliability through a range of practices. And they seem to be quite good at it.

What are the features of this? Reliability emerges from an understanding of the wider system and its vulnerabilities, as well as insights into local contexts. Horizon scanning must combine with the day-to-day practices that allow rapid, adaptive responses. Herders and market traders must do this all the time, regularly checking on grass, water, prices and so on, while having a good sense of the overall system. They will not rely on an ‘expert decision system’ from outside, but they must build reliability through their own networks, among individuals, kin, age-groups and communities. Communication and deliberation is central, facilitated these days by mobile communications. When a disaster strikes, knowledge, resources and labour can be mobilised rapidly, and animals can be moved, fodder purchased or water supplied.

Most standard, engineered systems designed for stable conditions are poor at generating reliability under such variable conditions. A health system relies on a regular flow of patients with a standard set of ailments requiring a prescribed array of treatments. This is fine under ‘normal’ conditions, but when a disease outbreak occurs, such systems quickly become overwhelmed, and there is a need to think differently.

Part of this is basic capacity, particularly in systems that are under-funded, but it also relates to the capacities of the professionals involved. Very often it is the frontline workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – who are left to innovate, to create reliability on the move. Managing an intensive care unit in a hospital may be more similar than we think to the embedded skills, aptitudes and practices of pastoralists, who must make agile, sometimes difficult, choices when facing variability.

4. Collective solidarities

If states cannot provide, businesses struggle and experts are overwhelmed, then what can we turn to?

Because externally-defined, top-down risk management based on predictive science is always insufficient under radical uncertainty and ignorance, we must also rely on ourselves – on community action and forms of solidarity and mutuality. Such initiatives are emerging during the coronavirus pandemic, including the explosion of locally-organised ‘mutual aid’ groups helping those in self-isolation and quarantine. Across Europe, a new, re-discovered moral economy is confronting the crisis.

How such arrangements work will, of course, depend on the setting and the challenge, but in pastoral areas, collective approaches to herd and flock management have always been vital in responding to variability. For example, a common tactic is to split a herd between young and vulnerable calves and milk cows who remain at home with additional fodder, and those that must migrate to distant pastures for the dry season. Mobility, flexibility and modular approaches to managing livestock and territory are the watchwords. These responses only work if they can mobilise labour, and this requires reciprocal relationships across kin and age groups and across communities.

In the past, east African pastoralism was characterised by extensive redistributive practices, as livestock were shared, loaned and redistributed across multiple ownership arrangements, facilitated by segmentary lineage structures and age-groups with specific responsibilities. This allowed for horizontal redistribution, friendship alliances across territories and marriage contracts that allocated stock. While such arrangements have declined, due to the individualisation and commoditisation of pastoral production, the cultural values and embedded practices still remain, and are often remobilised in times of severe crisis.

The revival of community and neighbourhood solidarities around COVID-19 are an example of how such social relationships are crucial in responding to uncertainty. Even in the commercialised, individualised West, they can still re-emerge around a re-defined sense of collective responsibility. In tackling a pandemic, working across nations, individual and collective actions must combine, public and private interests must converge, and centralised and local decision-making must interact.


COVID-19 is changing everything: how we live, how we relate, how we engage with expertise and how states and citizens interact. Deep uncertainties and extensive ignorance, as well as contested ambiguities, necessarily reshape society and politics.

In Western countries, we are learning to adapt fast. In the future – for this will not be the first or last time such a shock emerges – perhaps we can learn from others, including pastoralists, who have long embraced uncertainty as part of life.

This post first appeared on the PASTRES blog (www.pastres.org). It was written by Ian Scoones and Michele Nori, drawing on research on pastoralism and uncertainty

in Amdo Tibet, China; Borana, Ethiopia; Isiolo, Kenya; Gujarat, India; Sardinia, Italy and southern Tunisia.


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Why we should stop talking about ‘desertification’


A great new book has just been published called ‘The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands’, available at a shocking price from Springer. It is edited by two people who know a thing or two about these issues – Roy Behnke and Mike Mortimore – and it has 20 top quality chapters from all over the world, documenting why the term desertification has passed its sell-by date, if it ever had one at all. It is an impressive and timely synthesis, and I hope will become available in cheaper or free formats soon.

The myths of desertification have a long history. Ideas of desiccation and desert advance framed colonial science, informed by the narratives of the ‘dust bowl’ in the US. Yet whether from long-term environmental monitoring, areal and satellite photography, ecological modelling or local knowledge and field observation, the standard narratives have been found severely wanting. Unfortunately this accumulated evidence has been ignored, and the narratives of desertification persist. Why is this? As I discussed at the book launch event in London recently, we can get some insights from some reflection on the relationships between science and policy in this area – particularly in Africa – over the last 30-40 years.

Paradigm change

Within science, the debate has followed in many ways a classic Khunian cycle. A standard paradigm was challenged, a new paradigm proposed, and normal science then proceeded to test and nuance. In the 1970s, influenced by the new mathematics of complexity, ecologists such as Bob May argued that stability not an expected feature of ecosystems, even under deterministic conditions. In the context of African rangelands, Jim Ellis and team in Turkana – notably through the classic 1988 paper – contributed to an understanding of ecosystems not at equilibrium where density-independent factors (rainfall/drought/flood/snow) meant that animal populations were not at equilibrium, and different management regimes needed to apply.

Challenges to desertification myths, and simplistic equilibrium approaches to rangeland dynamics based on Clementsian succession ecology, have long been made. Jeremy Swift and Andrew Warren wrote classic papers in 1977 for the UN Conference on Desertification, but both were ignored. Stephen Sandford’s classic book of 1983 on pastoralism made many similar points, based on a mountain of evidence. The Woburn conferences in the early 1990s that I helped organise – and the two books that followed that I helped edit (here and here) – picked up on these findings and extended and expanded them, looking at the implications. A new paradigm for African rangeland management was born. African debates, we hoped, would become more compatible with mainstream ecology that had been around for several decades, and link to practice elsewhere – most notably in Australia.

This consolidation of empirical data within a new conceptual frame provoked lots of new work, and I don’t know how many PhDs and other studies have flowed from this. It also provoked inevitably some misunderstandings. For example, the assumption for example that all dryland systems were the same as Turkana (they are not – as I showed for Zimbabwe and Layne Coppock showed for Borana, in the Rangelands at Disequilibrium book); that in non-equilibrium systems degradation wouldn’t occur – of course it can, but in different ways. Others, such as Andrew Illius, helped introduce a more spatial perspective, highlighting the importance of patch dynamics in complex dryland ecosystems. Others extended and nuanced the argument, by integrating perspectives on animal and herder behaviour for example, as in Saverio Kratli’s impressive work in Niger. In the last decade, the science of remote sensing and GIS has enhanced spatial understandings of environmental change massively, reinforcing the argument against a linear view of desertification and a more dynamic view.

Susanne Vetter did a good job in summarising where the debate had got to by 2004. A more balanced view emerged – at least in the scientific community. This was ‘normal science’ in the Khunian sense and continues today. I get loads of papers to review that use the debate a starting point, and don’t have to go through the rigmarole of justifying the argument in the way we did in the 1993 Rangelands at Disequilibrium book.

Policy and institutional inertia and resistance

But the relationship between science and policy is not linear. If accumulated evidence had led to a transformation of paradigms, then surely policy and practice would follow suit? Well, no this is not how it happens! Evidence and policy, despite the rhetoric around evidence-based policymaking, are not neatly linked. Here the politics of knowledge and policy intervenes. Why is it that, even when scientific evidence is incontrovertible, then shifts in policy discourse and practice doesn’t happen? As always, in the debate about drylands in Africa we have to look at the intersections of discourse, actors, interests and politics – and so the politics of knowledge in policy. Here other forces are at play, beyond the slow accumulation of knowledge.

There were some in policy and practice circles who backed the non-equilibrium view, questioning the simplistic versions of desertification across the drylands. But this was sometimes a naïve advocacy for ‘indigenous’ systems – valorising transhumance or nomadism in a simplistic, romantic way. Ignoring challenges of land management, and inventing an ideal ‘tradition’, is not the answer.

Mainstream institutions and policy, while often playing lip service to changes in the growing critiques of the desertification framing, did not take the argument for rethinking on seriously. Paradigms may have shifted in science, but not in policy. Even today, it is amazing how often you see projects, documents, statements, plans repeating the same old story; as if debates in science over decades had never happened. Last month was ‘World Desertification Day’ held in Beijing when many speeches were made repeating old myths. Each time there is a Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Combatting Desertification, every government signatory, including Zimbabwe, has to trot out the arguments in its submission.

Why don’t things change?

In a commentary in the Living with Uncertainty book in 1994, Stephen Sandford said we would have to wait a generation for things to change (we have, and things still haven’t!). One reason is that a new ‘normal science’ only permeates through slowly via training, curriculum change and so on. Has this happened? I suspect not. My son just did A level biology – and he had to learn Clementsian succession by rote. I fear this is also the case in Africa. Incumbent power also resists change. This reflects the conservative nature of institutions and professions. While the science of rangelands has shifted, among field level departments, aid agencies, and their officials – old ideas stick. There is fast turnover of staff, poor resourcing, and institutional inertia and limited learning. A perennial pattern, perhaps especially in Africa.

But it’s not only inertia. There is also a more active politics of resistance. Take Ethiopia. Over the years, the policy documents framing pastoral development have changed. The well-funded Pastoral Community Development Project had a lot of the right rhetoric when it was established. It seemed to have taken on the new paradigm. But implemented by the Ministry of Federal Affairs, the programme has often focused on a programme of sedentarisation, fixed water points, and environmental measures to – you’ve guessed it – combat desertification. Threats of desertification and an old approach to dryland development align with Ethiopian state interests, making the drylands governable by a centralised state. When confronted – and I have been in several debates with high level officials on this programme – it’s defended essentially in political terms. Science is a long way from the discussion.

There is also the persistent and insidious power of incumbent institutions, hooked into a narrative that will not budge. In my view, one of the most mistaken moves in this field in the last 25 years was the creation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. As a concession to African states in the post-Rio deal, it has not had the traction of the conventions on biodiversity or climate change. The desertification narrative suited many purposes, and the critiques first raised in UN circles in 1977 were not heeded. The rhetoric is more sophisticated these days – participation, inclusion, cooperation, local knowledge and a wider view of land degradation are all part of the mix these days. But the fundamental frame remains – paradigm shifts do not shift UN bureaucracies, and too often resources are wasted and attention diverted from the real challenges of the drylands. Such organisations – and the UNCCD is not the only one – also become legitimators for science that has long been challenged. I don’t know how many comment pieces, policy briefs and communiques I receive that repeat those tired and long-disputed statistics of the areas of the world that are desertified or the amount of Africa that is suffering a nutrient deficit. Too often it’s spurious science and economics presented as fact, supporting a narrative that we thought had been dismissed decades ago.

Embracing uncertainty, working with variability

As science over many decades has shown, non-equilibrium ecology is a useful way of thinking about complex, highly variable dryland ecosystems – especially in the context of climate change. In particular, it provides a useful basis for challenging simplistic, linear desertification narratives. The key lesson is that there is no simple, standardised solution to dryland development, especially with fast-changing climatic, economic and political contexts – flexibility, agility and adaptive management is key. It is not amenable to a standard, control-oriented technocratic response. Just as the science has undergone a paradigm shift, so must policy and practice.  Of course wider contexts matter too. An ecologically-determinist view is inadequate – land tenure, administrative systems, investment regimes, and political economy contexts are vital. Since the non-equilibrium ecology challenge of the early 1990s, the contexts of Africa’s pastoral drylands have changed dramatically. Land grabs, privatisation and enclosure, settlement and the growth of towns, and changing commercial economies in the drylands have had a huge impact. Non-equilibrium ecology will not provide the answer, just a pointer. A wider engagement with political economy is necessary too.

Particularly worrying in the last ten years has been how the desertification narrative has been reinforced by debates about climate change. Again, against much evidence, climate change is simply taken to mean a secular shift, and so increasing desiccation, leading to land degradation and desertification. In fact, much climate science points to processes of increasing variability and uncertainty, not secular change. The satellite image data shows ‘deserts’ expanding and contracting over time in a complex patchwork, and not simply advancing. A focus on non-equilibrium, dynamic systems points to a different response – one centred on flexibility, adaptive management, responsive care and resilience, not control and technocratic intervention. The desertification narrative promotes a control-oriented response – with destocking, ‘green belts’, forest planting and engineering solutions dominating – rather than one that embraces uncertainty, and makes productive use of variability, as in the non-equilibrium paradigm. But of course realising the alternative paradigm is difficult. Institutional biases, procedures and routines reinforce control, especially when funding agencies and governments have fewer and fewer people in the field, connecting with the real world of the drylands. Funding flows, metrics, goals and targets just add to this, and I fear that both large-scale climate finance and the framing of the SDG goal 15 will only compound the problem.

The end of desertification?

So will this book make a difference? Is this the end of desertification talk? I hope so. But I also doubt it, unless it is more fundamentally connected to a political project of shifting the underlying politics of knowledge and practice that underpin the desertification narrative. Evidence as we’ve seen is not enough. We have to expose powerful people and institutions; we have to refuse to engage with organisations that promote inappropriate models of dryland development, and challenge them forcefully at every turn. I recommend a Tumblr site dedicated to ‘desertification nonsense’ that exposes organisations, governments, aid agencies and others (rather like the one exposing all-male panels, where the potential thumbs up from David Hasselhoff aims to encourage any workshop or conference organiser to change their plans). More positively, we have to develop, share and promote the new narrative – translating the science of 25 years or more into new ways of doing things. We have to focus more on training and curriculum change, and shift perspectives across generations. And we have to engage all these people still stuck in the old paradigm in our research, and avoid the perennial danger of the academic/research bubble, where paradigms change, but don’t make a difference.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland



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