The uncertainties brought about by climate change are nowhere more keenly felt than in the drylands of the East Africa but we can learn a lot about resilience from nomadic livestock farming communities, writes Dr Tom Campbell, Department of International Development


Tom Campbell - International Development - MU
The uncertainties brought about by climate change are nowhere more keenly felt that in the drylands of East Africa, where rising temperatures are leading to more frequent and intense droughts and floods, and exacerbating environmental health risks.

Compounded by the recurrence of Rift Valley Fever, a disease which impacts both livestock and humans, alongside the restrictions and curfews imposed as governments responded to COVID-19, the last three years have been a particularly challenging time for dryland communities - especially for nomadic pastoralists who depend on mobility of their herds as a primary livelihood strategy.
Nonetheless, the role of pastoralists in relation to environmental change is very often misunderstood.  For decades, dominant dryland narratives of ‘tragedy of the commons', 'desertification', and 'overgrazing', underpinned conventional pastoral development policies, and did little to strengthen pastoralist livelihoods. More recently a view has emerged amongst some government policy makers that mobile pastoralism is somehow ‘doomed by climate change’ – no longer viable in the context of the kinds of rapid climatic, demographic, and other changes underway in dryland areas.  Humanitarian organisations and the media frequently feed into this narrative, portraying pastoralists as among the groups most vulnerable to climate change and as disproportionately dependent on food aid.  

Pastoralists are reported as engaging in ‘negative coping strategies’ that are harmful to others – such as cattle raiding, or illegal land invasions' of areas set aside for wildlife conservation.   Hence the need for externally directed and managed ‘climate resilience’ interventions that seek to transform the pastoralist way of life, or convert pastoral rangelands to other ‘more productive uses’ – irrigated cropping, resource extraction, renewable energy, or wildlife tourism.

Simplistic narratives have a tendency to obscure a more complex relationship between pastoralism and climate change. Pastoralists in East Africa have been managing environmental variability and climate risk for millennia.  Pastoralists balance herd size, species and breed composition, grazing patterns, as well as other livelihood options, with an eye to managing climate and other risks. Movement with their animals allows pastoralists to not only mitigate against a drought or flood, or a livestock disease outbreak, but to harness environmental and rainfall variability and enhance livestock production. Pastoralism out-performs intensive livestock keeping and ranching in similar environments and has a lower ecological footprint.  By generating economic and ecological value from dryland environments, pastoralists also make an important contribution to national and regional economic growth.

In a recently published article in the journal Climate and Development, entitled 'The revival of the drylands: re-learning resilience to climate change from pastoral livelihoods in East Africa',  Greta Semplici  (University of Turin) and I review different waves of rural politics and development in the East African drylands, with a particular focus on Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands, in the context of climate change. We question the re-awakening of international and national attention paid to the drylands under the all-embracing framework of ‘resilience building’.

For this article, we relied on our experience with development in the East African drylands based on long term ethnographic fieldwork, for what concerns our knowledge of pastoral livelihoods, and on in-depth textual analyses of a sample of climate change and drylands development policy documents  for what concerns our claims they make about policy narratives. We argue that debates about climate change have brought drylands back onto the international stage after years of donor fatigue. And yet despite major theoretical and policy re-evaluations of the socio-ecological dynamics occurring in the drylands, problems at implementation level remain rooted in old mindsets and assumptions that are difficult to eradicate, while economic and political interests proliferate.  We suggest rethinking current practices of resource management and the ways we understand environmental change in drylands to an approach and perspective that is more inclusive of local perceptions and knowledge, and respects local practices.

We maintain that the promise of resilience of pastoralism fails largely because of the wider political and economic constraints that limit the possibilities for pastoralism to thrive through, and thanks to, uncertainty, more than because of the impacts of climate change. Instead, our research emphasizes how pastoral livelihoods and dryland environments could help us re-learn resilience and find solutions to climate change.

Far from the picture of ‘doom and gloom’ that is frequently associated with the pastoralist way of life, there is clearly another side to pastoralism - one that we can learn from in this age of uncertainty.  Nonetheless, the ability to which pastoralist communities can continue to adapt to, and anticipate, change – in other words, to be ‘resilient’ - as well as take advantage of new opportunities that arise, depends on multiple factors – not least a favourable policy environment. One that supports land rights and recognises the value of pastoralism, that safeguards pastoralists access to critical resources, and which enhances rather than restricts mobility - pastoralists key strategic means of managing variability.