Africa, Changing Lives: Making Research Real, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

ENVIRONMENT-KENYA: Threat to Pastoralists' Way of Life

Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Oct 6 2008 (IPS) - Ole Kaparo works as a school teacher in Nairobi, though his family still herds cattle in the Masai pastures of the north Rift Valley province. Five years ago, during a prolonged spell of drought, he left this traditional life to seek work in the city.

"The survival of the livestock depends on predicting the rains, something our ancestors used to do by observing the movement of the birds, the flowering time of trees and cloud patterns," says Kaparo, "Now, rains do not come when they are needed and floods hit us when they are not expected."

Over the last 25 years, there has been a four-fold increase in the incidence of drought, punctuated by unseasonal and intense rains. Roughly six of Kenya's 30 million people are pastoralists, herding their livestock in the arid and semi-arid lands that constitute about 75 percent of the country. It is these people who have been hardest hit by the dramatic changes in the weather.

Pastoralists have long been adept at surviving in dry conditions, but they rely on freedom of movement to manage the range lands.

"It's not only pasture and water that they have to move looking for," says John Letia, Oxfam's regional pastoral programme coordinator. "Mobility is also essential to pastoralists to move away from disease. In traditional range lands, pastoralists had dry and wet season grazing areas. They had a seasonal migratory calendar for these areas."

That calendar is now elusive. The Kenya Food Security Group, consisting of UN agencies, NGOs and government representatives, notes that severe drought-related shocks that used to occur every ten years now hit every five years or less.

As a result of these changes, more and more people from pastoralist communities are forced to abandon their millennia-old culture. According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, pastoralists make up 18 percent of Kenya's population and the group has the highest rate of poverty. The poorest districts in the country lie in its North Eastern Province, where over 80 percent live below the poverty line.

Many take up a settled life in villages and towns – where without any assets and little skill for urban income-generation, they find life difficult. An Oxfam field report on the Turkana district describes ex-pastoralists as surviving on food aid, gathering wild food, fishing, and begging.

A 2006 Christian Aid study of the North Eastern district of Mandera, found a third of herders living there – around half a million people – had been forced to abandon their pastoral way of life. So many cattle, camels and goats were lost to drought that more than half of the families who remain as herders need outside assistance to recover.

The livestock sector accounts for almost all household income in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands. The Kenyan Pastoralist Thematic Group estimates that pastoralism provides direct employment and livelihoods for over 3.5 million Kenyans. Yet successive government policies which have curtailed their right to use the land have left the pastoralists marginalised.

A 2008 Oxfam report on challenges to the pastoral lifestyle in East Africa, titled 'Survival of the Fittest', states: "It is clear that the value generated by pastoralist communities is not translating into prosperity, despite the suitability of pastoralism to its dryland environment. The question is why is this is so?"

The report identifies factors which, in addition to climate change, contribute to the growing poverty of pastoralist people. Under-investment in programmes to sustain pastoralism, the demand for more land for agriculture and wildlife parks, and inappropriate policies which follow a model imported from the temperate grasslands of North America. This model of fixed grazing lands has caused overgrazing and land degradation.

The future of pastoralism

Together these factors have altered the traditional symbiotic relationship between herdsmen and the ecology of drylands. Letia believes the methods developed over many thousands of years of pastoral activity can be used to address the challenge of climate change but that they will require investment in appropriate development projects to make pastoralism sustainable. Such projects also rest on changes in national policies as well as enhanced regional cooperation to grant the pastoralists rights over the range lands which cover lands across the national borders of East Africa.

In an effort to develop policies to tackle the effect of extreme weather, the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID), together with the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), have set up a joint venture to investigate climate change in Africa. The programme brings together scientists and governments.

One of its projects aims to shed light on pastoralists' vulnerability and coping strategies in Turkana and Mandera districts in northern Kenya. Researchers are examining indigenous methods, best practices and existing arrangements for adapting to climate change. The project focuses on the effect of policies which have restricted herd movement and tried to settle pastoralists, but with limited access to critical resources.

In a changing climate with increased drought, herd movement will become even more important as an adaptation strategy, and the project seeks practices that improve herd movement, such as livestock corridors, while securing pastoralists' right to water and forage.

Traditionally, African farmers have used indigenous knowledge to understand weather and climate patterns and make decisions about crop and irrigation cycles. However, the variability that comes with climate change has reduced their confidence in traditional knowledge.

Scientific weather forecasts, on the other hand, are formulated on a much larger scale and are presented in a way that is unfamiliar to farmers. To address this problem, the researchers are trying to integrate indigenous knowledge into scientific climate forecasts at the local level, where it can be used to by communities. The project is being carried out in Nganyi community in western Kenya, an area that is known to have a well-established system of traditional weather forecasting.

A number of other organisations are trying to offset the effects of climate change. Farm Africa have introduced small stock such as goats as one of the ways to help communities adapt. Veterinarians Sans Frontiers of Belgium have advocacy projects on cross border livestock. In Tanzania, Vet Aid have a community livestock trade buying project aimed at creating markets for. Oxfam runs cash-for-work programmes rather than food-aid handouts.

Kaparo, however, is not optimistic about the future of his traditional way of life. "A growing number of youth, dismayed by their perennial poverty, see pastoralism slowly dying in the face of challenges beyond their control and in a country where everyone calls them marginalised."

Republish | | Print |

emotions a to z