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Interview: Jeremy Swift, “Pastoralism has a future in Africa” 0

“I believe pastoralism not only has a future in Africa, but that their future will be rather more successful than many others, as climate change makes all drylands more risky with more extreme droughts and floods” says Jeremy Swift*, who specializes in the development of nomadic pastoral societies in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Read the interview released by professor Swift to, Sud Quotidien (Senegal), Les Echos (Mali), Le Républicain (Niger) and Le Confident (Central African Republic).

Agriculture is becoming increasingly competitive and among nomadic pastoralists there is tension between the refusal of a certain kind of modernity and the maintenance of traditional structures. In light of these two forces, do you think that pastoralism in Africa still has a future?

Nomadic pastoralism is a highly sophisticated form of land use, not a backward activity remote from modern agriculture. Pastoralists don’t refuse modernity; on the contrary they have adopted those aspects of modernity which are useful to them. Integration with national and regional markets are one example; there are many examples of pastoralists changing their outputs (different races or special of animals, selling milk or milk products) in response to changing market demand. Another example is the adoption of cell phones.

Many pastoralists now have cell phones and use them in day to day business, eg to find out the condition of pasture at the next destination, or the price of animals at a distant market. Many Iranian and Mongolian pastoralists have satellite TV in their tents with a small generator , and many Chinese herders use bicycles to herd their animals.

Pastoralists maintain some aspects of traditional social and political structures, again where it suits them. I believe pastoralism not only has a future in Africa, but that their future will be rather more successful than many others, as climate change makes all drylands more risky with more extreme droughts and floods. Pastoralists, because of their mobility, are uniquely equipped to respond to this.

The African Union sends out proposals to guarantee the survival of pastoralism and yet you evoke the need for a new definition for such activities. When facing equivocations by part of politicians and other actors such as NGOs, UN, foundations and other development partners, wouldn’t it be better to manage transhumance rather than fight it, by making herding routes and water access more visible on maps?

I agree that it is time to have some action on organisation of pastures and water etc, and believe that the new African Union policy on pastoralism will help this happen. The policy is a dynamic document which will evolve in the light of experience.

In Sahel region intensive breeding, which affects the vast majority of livestock, has never been a pressing issue for development policy. Pastoralists insist that it is important that government separates livestock and agriculture. Do you think that such a separation is key to the problem?

I think it would be a mistake to separate herding from agriculture. The two activities are complementary: herders need crop residues for animal feed, and need wells which are controlled by farmers; farmers need manure and animal traction. It would be economically counter-productive to separate these two activities. What does need to be done is for governments to clarify disputes, where farmers and herders disagree about for example resource use.

Don’t you think that one of the consequences of this anomaly is the result of lacking infrastructure and means adapted to pastoral livestock?

I fully agree that there is a lack of infrastructure and capital investments in pastoral areas. The reason for this, in addition to the bad view many governments have of pastoralism, is that the economic contribution of pastoralism to the national economy is seriously underestimated by most governments. Recent research in Ethiopia for example shows that the real contribution of pastoral livestock to GDP and exports is several times larger than is currently measured. If these facts were better know, planners would channel more investment to the pastoral sector. So an important policy recommendation is for better statistics on the pastoral economy.

The cohabitation of farmers and pastoralists is made more fragile by conflicts that often result in bloodshed. These conflicts are usually caused by fights over the management of natural resources. Are there any reliable mechanisms which can prevent this kind of conflict?

Conflicts are a major problem in pastoral areas, but I do not agree that most conflicts arise now because of disputes about natural resources. That used perhaps to be the case, but conflicts nowadays are more often connected to large scale commercial activities, smuggling, theft of animals by powerful people. In the worst cases pastoral areas (for example parts of northern Mali) have been taken over by drug smugglers and traders in illegal products and migrants to Europe.

There are good methods for conflict resolution when the conflict is between two groups of herders, for example local facilitation involving all the parties. But when the conflict has a powerful businessman on one side and some herders on the other it is clear which way the conflict will be settled.

Aside from this difficult cohabitation, armed conflicts, drought and famine all have devastating impacts on the future of pastoralism in Africa. Are there any projects or programs being supported by the European Union to prevent or eradicate these scourges?

The EU has many programmes with pastoralists in the ACP countries and conflict, drought and famine are the subject matters of many of them. The most successful programmes are where the country itself has strong policies in these matters and then asks for EU help in implementing the. Kenya has especially good programmes of this sort, partly the result of having a powerful Cabinet Minister whose mandate is the dry areas and their inhabitants.

The practice of pastoralism requires large areas for grazing. Today in Sahel countries, non-nomadic populations are putting pressure on natural resources, this together with frequent drought means that grazing areas are becoming increasingly small. In your opinion doesn’t this risk killing pastoralism in Sahel?

There is certainly pressure from agriculture on the good areas of the Sahel, and this makes life more difficult for herders. But there are vast areas where this is not the case, and where farmers cannot grow crops because of lack of water but where pastoralists can graze their animals. These areas will in size increase with climate change, because one of the main results of climate change will be to make the Sahel less hospitable for farmers, but possible for herders to use the resources.

The exception is of course the large irrigated farming projects in the flood zones of major rivers. The prospect for pastoralism here is not so good, since demand for land by farmers from large agri-business firms will grow.

During the conference on pastoralism organised by the CTA in Brussels, one participant highlighted the problem of land grabbing in Africa, where economic players in emerging countries damage nomadic pastoralists and farmers. In some parts of the African continent this phenomenon seems to announce the end of extensive breeding – what is your view on this?

I agree entirely that the acquisition of land by national or international agri-business is a bad development. It will be necessary for pastoralists to ally themselves with lawyers and human rights organisations to stop this practice.

What policies and strategies can African leaders apply in order to promote human rights within nomadic pastoralist communities?

The human rights of pastoralists should not be any different from other people’s. At present, because they participate very little in national political discourse, pastoralist do not exercise their rights. I believe this is an important step forward for pastoralists when they join with other populations to demand rights. Land rights are especially important. There is already some experience in East Africa of pastoralists lobbying successfully for such rights. In west Africa the so called ‘Chartes pastorales’ are the start of such activities.

Some countries in Sahel region, including Niger, are still facing a serious food crisis that is threatening not just people but also livestock.  How can countries affected by drought create synergies and overcome this crisis without having the opportunity to rely on international aid that often comes too late?

There is a major drought this year all across the Sahel belt, and it is particularly bad in Somalia, southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, as well as in Mali. Its effects are particularly bad in Mali because of the conflict arsing from the return to Mali of Tuareg soldiers working for Gaddafi.

There are many aspects of drought management which should be applied in these cases. The following are needed: an early warning system, a rapid response system to react to early warning, and a local fund to finance activities that are part of the rapid response. All three of these are needed; any one on its own is of no use. There are many examples of good practice in Africa which should be followed. It should be repeated endlessly to all government officials: drought is a natural event; famine is a man-mad event; drought cannot be stopped, famine can.

During your professional carrier what similarities have you found between pastoral communities in Africa and those in Mongolia, China or Iran?

There are many similarities between pastoralism in countries like Mali, Ethiopia, as well as in China, Iran and Mongolia, and even Europe, including Wales where I live. These similarites include: a focus of household activities on livestock, but an inability often to make an adequate household income from livestock alone, hence the need for additional diversified activities; the important position of risk in economic decision making; use of both private and collectively owned pastures for at least part of the year; political isolation from the government and the capital city; the continuing importance of ‘customary’ social structures; mobility – the animals must move to make the most of good pastures.

Your research has also been focused on the management of commonly owned resources. How can this kind of management be developed between States and nomadic communities that sometimes cover huge distances (1,000 km in Chad, from 500 to 800 in Mali) and cross several borders?

There are examples of long distant migrants such as the Wodaabe Peul of Mali and Niger moving many hundreds of kilometres in drought years, but these are unusual and people who do make such moves, like the Wodaabe, generally do not have complex rules about common pastures. However there is an extraordinary example in Mali of Peul pastoralists who migrate very long distances but maintain extremely detailed institutions and rules for pasture management. This is the 19th century Dina system in the Mopti area which is still in force.

It is possible to maintain complex rules even when people are absent as long as there is a state structure capable of implementing the rules and policing them. But it is clearly easier if there are people all year to prevent other people encroaching on the reserved pastures. There is an interesting example in Mongolia of the state signing long seasonal pasture leases with pastoral groups, under which the group is the only user of the pastures; it then becomes the responsibility of the state to police the agreement and ensure other pastoralists don’t use them.

Interview coordinated by Joshua Massarenti (

© Sud Quotidien (Senegal), Les Echos (Mali), Le Républicain (Niger), Le Confident (Central African Republic) and (Italy)

This article is published in the framework of an editorial project supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in the framework of Brussels Development Briefings ( ), but does not necessarily reflect the views of the this organisation.

* Professor Jeremy Swift specializes in the development of nomadic pastoral societies in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. His focus has been of poverty, food insecurity and famine, conflict and risk, land tenure and common property resource management. Recently he has worked extensively on education for nomadic groups who cannot attend school because of the distances involved, experimenting with the design of a distance learning system using radio transmission which will become operational in Kenya this year. Professor Swift has been particularly interested in the management of famine and the design of drought contingency planning systems. He designed the original Kenya drought management scheme, and has done similar work on how government and herders could jointly manage risk in Iran, Mongolia and China. Most of his professional career was spent at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex in UK.

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