Pastoralism Essay

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Pastoralism is broadly defined as a land use system where communities raise livestock, such as camels, goats, cattle, sheep, llamas, or yaks, to make a living. It involves herding on natural pastures and implies that animal husbandry is the dominant strategy in an economic and cultural sense. In reality, pastoralism is more complex to define due to the diversity of pastoralist systems as adaptations to local conditions. The composition of herds, management strategies, and social organization vary significantly between regions. Pastoral societies include the Maasai in eastern Africa, Bedouin in the Middle East, Navajo in North America, Raika in India, Chukchi in Siberia, and Mongols in northcentral Asia. There are an estimated 100 million pastoral people worldwide, while Africa has the largest pastoral population with 20 million.

In general, commonly used factors to distinguish pastoral systems are dietary patterns and herd mobility. Pure pastoral systems are those where livestock constitute at least 50 percent of the economic portfolio of a household. Pastoral systems are distinguished by varying degrees of movement of people and herds, ranging from nomadic, to semi-nomadic, to semi-sedentary systems. Nomadic pastoralism is considered the most mobile system, where herders exclusively rely on animal products for subsistence, exchange, and trade. Livestock are not only a source of livelihood, but constitute cultural significance, providing a wide range of functions such as: milk, meat, traction, manure, blood, skin, and religious and cultural meaning. Generally, meat production is a minor component, as this involves killing the investment.


It is believed that recognizable pastoralist systems date back several thousand years. While the differentiation between wild and domestic livestock in archeological evidence remains challenging, most studies suggest that the presence of domestic cattle goes back at least 6,000 years (for example, in northeast Africa). One of the most prominent views of the origins of pastoralism in the earlier literature suggests that pastoralism is an evolutionary stage in human history, directly derived from hunting and gathering and followed by farming and sedentarization. However, archaeological evidence and historical documents suggest that the origins are more complex. For instance, evidence suggests that agriculture started earlier than pastoralism.


Pastoralists live mostly in marginal areas. They inhabit regions of the world in which the natural environments provide little potential for cultivation due to their rainfall or temperature regimes, or terrain. These marginal areas include drylands, rangelands, savannas, steppes, tundra, and mountains. The natural resource base in pastoral environments is generally characterized by patchiness of resources across time and space. Temporal variation of biomass is closely tied to climatic conditions that are often highly variable and unpredictable; this is particularly true in drylands. Here, vegetation has adapted to variable rainfall by accumulating seed reserves in the soil that germinate when rainfall conditions allow. In cold environments, the limiting factor is temperature and a short growing season restricts access to fodder and requires its conservation for the winter.

The resource management system of pastoralists is considered one of the most effective strategies for utilizing drylands and a well-adapted strategy to sustain human populations in environments with limited resources.

The most important component of pastoralist systems is mobility-an adaptive resource use strategy to manage risk by exploiting highly variable natural resources (water and forage). It is aimed at minimizing the effects of drought. A range of other considerations play a role in determining movement patterns: for example, soil conditions, environmental factors (dew, shade, predators), avoiding pests, disease, and damage to crops, proximity to markets, household labor availability, cultural gatherings, territorial boundaries, political insecurity, and social relations. Mobility is determined by a detailed environmental knowledge, and a complex system of rules and regulations that determine whether communities can negotiate access to resources.

Herd management and diversification is also important. Pastoralists keep diverse herds to provide for their needs and to optimally utilize available resources. Diversification increases the range of products and spreads risk. The main aim is to accumulate large herds to have enough females to supply milk. For instance, east African pastoralists commonly keep cattle to provide milk and as a form of investment, and additionally small stock for its meat supply and to be sold on the market. Pastoralist systems can rapidly respond to changing environmental conditions by switching to different strategies (such as other species, or opportunistic cultivation).

Social Organization

The resource management system is closely intertwined with complex social organization that regulates the use of resources. While decisions about livelihood strategies are made at the household level, the community plays a crucial role. Decisions about access to water and pasture are made by the community and animals are often herded communally. Informal and formal institutions govern access to the common resources of pasture and water and act as checks against overuse. Social control mechanisms are enforced through traditional leadership. The concepts of reciprocity and mutual dependence are particularly important during times of scarcity. Individuals will then call upon relatives and alliances in other regions, distributing parts of their herds among them in anticipation of future losses.

Perceptions of Pastoralism

Scientists and policy makers attempted to describe pastoralist systems in the light of three interrelated paradigms-range equilibrium, backwardness of pastoralists, and tragedy of the commons. These paradigms have influenced interventions in pastoral environments. The range model was based on equilibrium, which assumes that livestock density is limited by forage availability that is constant in space and time. When herds expand to exceed carrying capacity, they cause overgrazing and degradation. While this may be an adequate model for temperate zones, it is flawed in its applicability to drylands. The assumptions include that drylands are potentially stable ecosystems, that they are often destabilized by improper use, and that interventions are needed to return these systems to a productive state.

Colonial and postcolonial governments in Africa interpreted pastoralism as a maladaptive, destructive system. Pastoralists’ obsessive concern with livestock was called premodern and accused of obstructing development. Policies showed a strong bias toward agriculture, and consequently, pastoralists were relegated to the periphery of economics and politics. Throughout the 1980s the focus remained on the need to modernize and settle pastoralists and turn them into more efficient land users.

Pastoralism was also perceived within the concept of common property resources, coined by Hardin in 1968 as the Tragedy of the Commons. It engages property rights to explain environmental degradation. The Tragedy of the Commons assumes that individual herders maximize profit by fielding as many cattle as possible on common land; this will ultimately lead to overgrazing and stocking densities exceeding carrying capacity. The concept assumes that individuals maximize herd size for individual gains, while bearing only a fraction of the costs imposed on the common resource. Once the resource is exploited, pastoralists avoid the consequences by moving into another area. This scenario led to the conclusion that with limited grazing areas, demographic growth will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the land.

These paradigms have long been considered a viable way of explaining pastoralism. However, mainly due to the failure of interventions based on these paradigms, they are increasingly questioned. Little evidence actually supports overstocking claims on a wider scale. A new understanding includes that pastoral environments are characterized by nonequilibrium and heterogeneity, that pastoralist strategies are not aimed at maximizing production, and that pastoralism is a sustainable response to harsh environmental conditions. Alternative approaches to common property resources are emphasizing decentralized systems of self-management. Institutions and behavioral norms that have evolved over time in pastoral communities are considered more appropriate than imposing new institutional frameworks.

Constraints to Pastoralism

Pastoral communities worldwide share a common difficulty of interacting with the state, neighboring land users, and markets. The relationship between them and the state has often been ambivalent, characterized by hostility and suspicion. Pastoralists have become marginalized within national borders due to remoteness from the capital and the segmentation of pastoral groups during the creation of nation-states after colonialism; this has limited their ability to represent their interests at a national level.

The wider economic, ecological, demographic, and political context in which pastoralists operate has significantly changed in recent decades, creating unprecedented pressures and leaving pastoralists more vulnerable. While climate variability is becoming more severe, pastoralists are exposed to more frequent droughts. Their traditional grazing lands are shrinking due to tighter national borders, political conflict, growing competition over land amongst pastoralists, spreading cultivation and conservation areas, urbanization, mining, and notions of private property. There is growing evidence of increasing land degradation at local scales. At the same time, population growth remains high in pastoral areas, adding more people to a system with scarce resources. Mobility is severely restricted, and increasing numbers of pastoralists diversify by incorporating cultivation or migrating into urban areas. National strategies to reduce poverty do not effectively reach pastoralist areas, and access to education, health care, and infrastructure is only slowly improving.

Pastoralists have a comparative advantage in exploiting marginal environments-supplying animal products to meet global demands may be an economic opportunity. Additional opportunities may arise from the production of niche products (like exotic species), comanagement systems of conservation areas, and ecotourism. Realizing these opportunities, however, will require a concerted effort by national and international governments to provide an enabling environment. As long as pastoralists remain marginalized, without access to markets, and perceived as backward, they may not be able to effectively exploit the advantages they have. Moreover, commercialization and globalization will inevitably transform the system with unknown social and cultural consequences. It will also affect the environment, as growing populations are leaving their trace on the landscape, with increasing evidence of resource degradation and scarcity.

Increasing vulnerability and continuing marginalization indicate that pastoralists are not able to respond to the pressures effectively. Recognizing these challenges, there are voices that call for the abandonment of this way of life altogether. Others argue that pastoralism should be supported into the future on the basis of human rights, the right of communities to preserve their cultures, and environmental concerns that argue for pastoralism as sustainable land use. Current vulnerability should be considered as a policy failure, rather than a failure of pastoralism itself. Major shifts in policy are needed to support pastoralists. Pastoralists need to be recognized as rational decision makers. Within the context of decentralization policies an effort has to be made to integrate pastoral communities into decision-making processes. Ultimately, it is for the pastoralists to decide whether their way of living is viable, or whether it will be more beneficial to give up pastoralism for another way of life.


  1. E. Ellis and D.M. Swift, “Stability of African Pastoral Ecosystems: Alternate Paradigms and Implications for Development,” Journal of Range Management (v.41/6, 1988);
  2. Fratkin, “Pastoralism: Governance and Development Issues,” Annual Review of Anthropology (v.26, 1997);
  3. G. Galaty and D.L. Johnson, The World of Pastoralism: Herding Systems in Comparative Perspective (Guilford Press, 1990);
  4. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science (v.162, 1968);
  5. Markakis, Pastoralism on the Margin (Minority Rights Group International, 2004);
  6. Pastoralism in the New FAO Animal Production and Health Paper (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2001);
  7. B. Smith, Pastoralism in Africa: Origins and Development Ecology (Hurst & Co., 1992);
  8. Warren, “Changing Understandings of African Pastoralism and the Nature of Environmental Paradigms,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (v.20/2, 1995).

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