Herders Essay

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Herders are people whose lives revolve around the tending of animals and who, consequently, tend to have a seminomadic or nomadic lifestyle. They range from shepherds and cowherds who are found in a wide variety of agricultural settings to the reindeer herders of the north to the nomadic steppe tribes of Mongolia and Central Asia. Despite the name, nomadic tends to mean rotation around a set number of locations on a seasonal or yearly basis. Herders tend to have close knowledge of their environments and are aware of exactly where and when their livestock need to transfer to another location. This is based primarily on the exhaustion of existing food stocks in current locations and understanding the length of time needed for them to be replenished. The mobility of nomadic herders means they are capable of responding to environmental change or the prevalence of disease by rapid migration, which means they are less likely to suffer from the mass starvation that can affect more sedentary people, but which also can lead to conflict with peoples into whose territory they are required to move. It has been argued that such environmental change explains the rise of empires such as that of Genghis Khan’s Mongols. In any case, herders and nonherders tend to have competing visions for land use, which can only with difficulty be made compatible and cooperative.

As the demands for greater agricultural production and industrialization of the world increase, combined with desertification processes, the space for herders decreases, especially in the case of those living fully nomadic lives. Since they tend to be poorer than sedentary societies, it is likely that they will be settled in some form of reservation in the same way that the Aborigines of Australia and the indigenous peoples of North America have been settled and are likely to suffer from similar social problems. The poverty of herders is both contributed to by, and results from, the low level of infrastructure and education among their societies, although there are exceptions to this. Efforts by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), among others, to assist herders have often focused on raising their capacity to deal with state-level actors and to negotiate different living patterns with respect both to the environment and to their neighbors. This is necessary because of possible mistrust by government and also by those neighbors whose lifestyle may differ from the herders and who may feel threatened by or antagonistic toward them for historical reasons.

Because herders occupy lands that may be remote from central governments and have low technical capacity themselves, it is difficult to evaluate their numbers accurately.


  1. Gerry Conaty and Lloyd Binder, The Reindeer Herders of the Mackenzie Delta (Firefly Books, 2004);
  2. Dahl and A. Hjort, Having Herds: Pastoral Herd Growth and Household Economy (Liber Tryck, 1976);
  3. Brian Fagan, The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (Granta Books, 2004);
  4. L. Johnson, The Nature of Nomadism: A Comparative Study of Pastoral Migrations in Southwestern Asia and Northern Africa (University of Chicago, 1969).

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