Given the forces ranged against it, it is perhaps surprising that pastoralism has survived at all. However, pastoral production systems do have some features in their favour, including:
Pastoralists have long-term flexibility that is based on their ability to exploit patchy resources. It has often been observed that, the more nomadic pastoralists are, the better they are able to survive climatic catastrophes such as blizzards and droughts (see e.g. the accounts in Gallais, 1984 of the Sahelian drought of the early 1970s). However, they are also able to switch species (as Jordanian Bedu switched almost entirely from camels to sheep in the period 1970-1995), main saleable output (as Fulše in the Igbo areas of Nigeria have switched from dairying to meat production) or even entirely out of pastoralism for a period.
When pastoralists come up against highly efficient modern-era livestock industries they face major price competition for their products, especially as these may often be dumped, sometimes by the very nations that are offering pastoralists emergency assistance. However, pastoralists do not have to meet hygiene, packaging and transport costs and tariffs that are sometimes onerous. Moreover, the single most important cost to all intensive systems is investment in land itself, both enclosing it and maintaining its productivity, a cost that pastoralists do not bear, except on the rare occasions when they destock to conserve forage.
The problems that pastoralists face are as much social and political as they are economic and resource-based. Just as mediaeval empires felt constantly threatened by nomads on the frontiers, so the modern nation State holds the stereotype of nomadic peoples as backward, archaic and a political threat. The arguments advanced by researchers concerning the potential for pastoralists to contribute to national productivity and interrelate with settled farmers are overridden by concerns about their constant movement and, thus, a failure to control them in both economic and political terms. One frequent consequence is neglect of infrastructure in remote areas, making the concerns become self-fulfilling prophecies because nomads then do start to oppose the State.
Whatever the future of pastoralism, its present shape has evolved under pressure from very distinctive twentieth-century influences, making it impossible to return to some imagined golden era. These factors are summarized in Table 13.
Many of these new situations are being replicated in various regions of the world; the factors that have had such a heavy impact on African pastoralists are affecting those in Central Asia. It would be gratifying if there were some “read-across”, i.e. some sense that lessons learned in one geographic area and time frame can be absorbed in the policy-making structures of another.
Evidence as to the future of pastoralism is generally discouraging; throughout Africa and the Near East pastoralists are being driven into ever-more marginal areas through the gradual expansion of arable terrain. Transport and enclosed livestock production are forcing out the remaining pastoralists in the Americas and the circum-Mediterranean region. The marginal lands that were previously the province of pastoralists are
Key factors shaping twentieth-century pastoralism
Modern veterinary medicine
Increases in productivity and greatly enlarged herds
Major decline in predator threats, increasingly violent ethnic conflict and high levels of insecurity
Collapse of traditional safety-nets in terms of long-distance migration in periods of climatic extremes
International pressure for hygiene in slaughtering and dairying
Declining market for pastoralists’ products
Declining prestige of dairy products
Terms of trade running constantly against pastoral livelihoods
World market in livestock products
Governments import cheap meat, milk, etc. to satisfy urban demand at the expense of the pastoral sector
Ideological interference by the State
Inappropriate social and management strategies adopted and maintained by a combination of subsidized inputs and implied violence
Alternative calls on pastoral labour
Pressure for children to go to school and younger people to earn cash outside the pastoral economy
Modern transportation infrastructure
Replaces systems in which transport is a major element of economic production (llamas, horses)
Introduction of high-input, high-output
Makes pastoralists dependent on effective infrastructure where input supply exotic breeds is irregular, creating periodic crises
Emergency relief, restocking and rehabilitation programmes
Keeps non-viable households in pastoral areas, thereby accelerating the cycle of deficits
Pressure to turn previously pastoral land over to reserved wildlife/ biodiversity regions with corresponding hard currency income from tourism
Encroachment on rangeland
Elimination of rangeland through the use of politically attractive but often uneconomic irrigation systems
increasingly coming into focus as reserves of biodiversity. In Central Asia, decollectivization and the consequent loss of subsidized infrastructure provided by the former Soviet regime has paradoxically brought about a return of more traditional systems. At the same time, however, veterinary services are declining and market prices for livestock products now reflect the access problems of much of the region. The consequence has been accelerating impoverishment in many countries; a situation intermittently remedied by mineral revenues but not through the development of pastoral systems.
Pastoralism is likely to disappear in any region where it competes with agriculture. Nonetheless, it is increasingly realized that politically popular but unsustainable development of rangelands, often dependent on the mining of fossil water, is not a long-term development strategy, and in some decades’ time pastoralists may reclaim such land. The ancient North African development of much of the northern Sahara through large irrigation channels is today only an archaeological curiosity in a pastoral zone. Pastoralists remain a resource, a system of producing meat and milk cheaply in land that is otherwise hard to exploit, and as such they will persist in some form. This resource can be protected and managed effectively or ignored and allowed to decline. Government policies are very unlikely to be uniform in this respect, and pastoralists are thus likely to gravitate to regions where conditions are most favourable. The key is therefore to disseminate improved understanding of pastoral society as broadly as possible, making both policy and the effective management of natural resources as widespread as possible.