Tag Archives: pastoralism

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’

Stop-le-desert

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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