A rich vein of news and information on the environment, conservation and development is finding its way into the mainstream media at the moment from the IUCN World Conservation Congress currently taking place in Barcelona, Spain. Among the reports making the science news headlines is the latest Red List of threatened species, suggesting that as many as a quarter of the world’s mammals may be threatened with extinction. But among the other reports which caught my eye as a one-time grasslands researcher, is a plea for recognition of pastoralism as a sustainable form of farming for dryland areas.

Pastoralists have often had a bad press, being seen as backward and unproductive, and of contributing to desertification through unregulated grazing. They are frequently viewed as a problem by governments, who can be uncomfortable with peoples who wander freely across borders, and in some countries such as China changes to tenure systems have forced nomads to become settlers and farmers. Elsewhere, rising populations have brought increasing conflict between crop farmers and pastoralists, and conservationists have evicted traditional herders from land turned into national parks.

But a report by the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP) claims that this traditional method of livestock farming not only produces tangible benefits such as meat, wool and milk, but also has indirect value by providing wider environmental services such as safeguarding biodiversity or promoting tourism in rural areas. It is also suggested that pastoralism could actually help prevent soil erosion.

The study focuses on pastoralism in Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgzstan, Mali, Peru and Spain. It suggests that properly managed grazing can help maintain biodiversity. Grasslands hold water, and store around a third of the global stock of carbon. Findings in Spain report a link between the rate of erosion and the amount of manure deposited by grazing animals, with free-ranging livestock an efficient way to distribute this equally.

A search of CAB Abstracts brought up nearly 2000 records on pastoralism, and some interesting findings. In a paper published in Human Ecology (a good source of research on pastoralists), Pedersen and Benjaminen (2008) show that in northern Mali, the children of pastoralists are better nourished than children of sedentary farmers, and that the children of settled nomals seem to the the worst off. McGahey et al. (2007) suggest that extensive land use by pastoralists enhances biodiversity and supports long-term conservation of wildlife hatibat. It is argued that the institutions, knowledge and practices that enable pastoralists to conserve and enhance arid lands have been seriously compromised by inappropriate policies and development interventions, and that pastoralists are forced to compete with the conservation movement for land and resources. Nori et al. (2008) discuss how mobility can help herders cope with scarce and variable resources, and address the rights concerning the access to and the control of resources in the context of climate change. Angassa and Oba (2008) discuss the effects of range enclosures, crop farming and bans on fire on communal rangelands in southern Ethiopia, and propose that sustainable use of these rangelands will require a greater focus on regulating the expansion of enclosures, crop farming and ranching, as well as reintroducing fire where necessary, to control the expansion of bush cover.

China, the country where there has been most policy pressure for the settlement of former nomads, also has some of the greatest problems of land degradation and desertification. A report on China Development Brief from 2007 says that while most mainstream scientists and officials cite population pressure, over-grazing and climate change as the primary cause of grassland degradation, other academics are advocating a return to the nomadic style of living and production.

Lifestyles and land use necessarily evolve, and many pastoralists voluntarily settle, or move to cities, in the hope that their children will hence have a higher standard of living than they did. But sustainable use of rangelands, particularly in arid areas where seasonal use of pastures allows them to recover when the livestock move on, may be better served by programmes stressing multiple use, participatory development and biodiversity than by evicting pastoralists from their traditional lands, or forcing them into permanent settlements.

The WISP report is available both as a 4-page summary and the full 28-page report. See also the FAO book ‘Grasslands of the World’, available in full text here, where a number of chapters include detailed discussions of the pastoralist system.


Angassa, A. , Oba, G. / Human Ecology, 2008, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 201-215, many ref. Herder perceptions on impacts of range enclosures, crop farming, fire ban and bush encroachment on the rangelands of Borana, Southern Ethiopia.

McGahey, D. , Davies, J. , Barrow, E. / Annals of Arid Zone, 2007, Vol. 46, No. 3/4, pp. 353-377, many ref. Pastoralism as conservation in the horn of Africa: effective policies for conservation outcomes in the drylands of eastern Africa.

Nori, M. , Taylor, M. , Sensi, A. / Issue Paper – Drylands Programme, International Institute for Environment and Development, 2008, No. 148, pp. 28 , 41 ref. Browsing on fences: pastoral land rights, livelihoods and adaptation to climate change.

Pedersen, J. , Benjaminsen, T. A. / Human Ecology, 2008, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 43-57, 50 ref. One leg or two? Food security and pastoralism in the northern Sahel.

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