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Pastoralist Knowledge Hub

Background

Pastoralists are a collective of several hundred million livestock keepers distributed all over the world whose unique livelihoods face challenges that are often linked to the environment in which they live and to the mobility that characterizes them. Pastoralists are the main producers in the world’s drylands, mountains and cold areas. They not only sustain vibrant and culturally unique communities, but they are also linked with many other people that depend on their activities. Governments often neglect to invest and provide public services and tenure security in rangelands. This results in a high level of poverty in many marginal areas, but also in a low productivity of land and livestock, and in a significant degradation of land, water and biodiversity resources.

Pastoralist economies

The pastoral production system has the ability to produce a variety of products and services from multiple sources in the ecosystem. Products and services such as milk, meat, fiber, hides, employment and transport are important inputs to agriculture, tourism and nature conservation and play an important role in culture and risk management. Appropriately managed grazing land also provides a wide range of environmental services in the form of carbon sequestration, protection of water services and biodiversity enhancement.

Pastoral products and services arise from an efficient low-input, low-output production system that takes advantage of the huge extensions occupied by rangelands to achieve economies of scale. Many of these products provide multiple values for pastoralist livelihoods and are efficiently used inside the communities. Although often not yet traded outside pastoralist communities, the particular characteristics of pastoral products allow for an added economic value if marketed appropriately. Programmes to increase demand for high-quality animal products and increase the availability of transport and market infrastructure offer opportunities to pastoralists for innovation and improvement in commercialization and marketing.

Pastoralists and the environment

Pastoral lands are characterized by plant productivity peaks that are variable in space and time. In these environments, yields are unpredictable and adapted strategies are necessary to utilize available resources efficiently. Pastoralists are able to thrive in these environments, overcoming uncertainty through mobility and communal use of resources.

Pastoralist production systems take place at huge scales and therefore need to minimize fuel, feed and fertilizer inputs in order to be economically sustainable. Because of the low reliance on external outputs, environmental impacts are reduced and the economic resilience of pastoralists is increased. The use of locally adapted breeds is fundamental to retain the system’s capacity to adapt to changing environments and provides pastoralists with resilience towards climate fluctuations. 

The adaptation of pastoralist production to local environments implies mimicking the ecosystem function of wild herbivores. This explains why traditional pastoralism has been shown to be fundamental for maintaining biodiversity and soil fertility in grazing as well as in agro-pastoralist settings. Pastoralists are increasingly being recognized as custodians of habitats of conservation interest and as keepers of genes of their breeds.

Pastoralist communities

The productive systems and resilience strategies of pastoral communities rely on cultural and social features. They range from traditional ecological knowledge to governance arrangements for communal resources or solidarity mechanisms such as animal exchange based on social relations. The ultimate goal of these strategies is to increase the resilience of pastoralist livelihood.

Pastoralists have been deeply affected by marginalization, as sedentary societies with poor understanding of their livelihood system have imposed alien social and governance schemes. These often involve sedentarization attempts or hurdles to mobility or service delivery, such as education and health systems. Disruption of pastoral mobility has the potential to trigger food insecurity because of the higher productivity and resilience of mobile systems. As a consequence, pastoralist communities often distrust governments a situation easily ending up in conflicts and instability.

New technologies and women empowerment give huge opportunities for the improvement of pastoralist communities by integrating them further into the wider society and by facilitating market innovations. Technological developments linked with mobile phones and the internet are rendering service delivery increasingly simple for mobile communities. Communications have also improved between the communities and those members that have left for urban areas. Many of the diversification opportunities for pastoralists rely on roles and productions traditionally assigned to women, who have now the opportunity to increase their voice in decision making processes.