FAO Regional Office for Africa

Partners call for support towards an International Year of Pastoralists

Pastoralists are stewards of the rangelands that cover a third of the planet’s land surface, providing food and protecting key ecosystem services

Representatives of Chadian women pastoralists (Photo credit: ILRI/Dorine Odongo)

Nairobi, 23 May 2016 – Pastoralism can be environment-friendly and can also be a source of sustainable production.  An animated debate by key-players in the livestock sector demonstrated pastoralism’s ability to promote healthy ecosystems in the face of climate change and diminishing pastoral lands, showing that common pastures are potential sinks of green-house gases.

Kicking off a side event on sustainable pastoralism during the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), the Deputy Executive Director for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw reminded participants that ten years ago, myths and misconceptions surrounding pastoralism were already being strongly debunked – particularly those that portray it as  “primitive”, unproductive and environmentally destructive. Research showing that pastoralism can promote healthy ecosystems continues to be largely ignored, underexploited or misunderstood.

UNEA’s President, Ms. Oyuna Sanjasuren who is also the current Mongolian Minister of Environment and Green Development has called for support towards the establishment of the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists.  The day would be used as a platform to increase knowledge and understanding of pastoralism and rangelands and its unique ecosystems and inhabitants.

The Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change of Ethiopia, Dr Shiferaw Teklemariam, has emphasised that to achieve the 2030 and Africa 2063 agendas, it is imperative that pastoralist issues be addressed. Speakers have also emphasized on the growing demand for livestock products while acknowledging that there is need to mitigate and undo environmental degradation. 

UNEP, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and other international organizations are pushing for policies to protect pastoralists and increased investment in dry lands, improved market access for pastoralists and incentives for environmental stewardship.

FAO and its partners support pastoralist development through initiatives such as the Pastoralist Knowledge Hub. Launched in April 2014, the Hub aims to increase cooperation among pastoralist networks and international organizations and to create opportunities for pastoralists to voice their concerns to the international community. FAO is also working on improving governance of pastoral Lands through the implementation of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests, in the context of national food security. 

Pastoralists as environmental stewards

An estimated 200 million pastoralists herd their animals on rangelands that cover a third of the Earth’s land surface. They rely on their mobility to find adequate grazing and water in the face of uncertain climatic conditions.

Pastoralists’ livestock are important in conserving and managing the environment. Moving from place to place, they disperse seeds, fertilize soils with their dung while regular grazing and trampling maintains landscapes and biodiversity. Much of the world’s biodiversity is found in rangelands, and pastoralism unlike many other land uses is often compatible with local wildlife. The debate on the detriments of intensive livestock-raising as compared to pastoralism has been rife, with the former being challenged due to the usage of antibiotics, high demand for land and water, heavy chemical applications, and waste management challenges. Pastoral systems do not suffer from these issues but intrinsically face other challenges that have led to displacement and disenchantment of pastoralist communities.

Adapted and resilient pastoral systems are estimated to be two to ten times more productive per unit area than some of the alternative land uses that have been proposed to replace them.  Yet the challenges that face pastoral systems continue to increase and have only been compounded by climate-change.  These include unsustainable grazing practices, crop land expansion, land grabbing, land fragmentation, generational succession, migration and urbanization, invasive plants and harmful policies.

International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists to transform pastoralism

A coalition of ten international organizations is seeking to designate the United Nation’s International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists from the year 2020.  With approval from the United Nations General Assembly, they aim to use such a platform to highlight the need to improve pastoral production systems while safeguarding the environment.

Calling for a transformation towards sustainable pastoralism in drylands, experiences from different countries have been provided with the intention to push for a transformation towards sustainable pastoralism, particularly in drylands.  Examples include Norway’s experience with reindeer husbandry, pastoral women’s participation in Chad, policy-changes in Mongolia and various examples from Africa’s Sahel region.

These illustrations take into account production and trade within the international markets, infrastructure and basic service provision but most important, policy and inclusion of pastoralists in decisions that affect them.  Policy makers and institutions have been called upon to draw attention to traditional know-how, facilitate access of pastoralist rights – especially on land tenure, and create institutional arrangements that enhance the herders’ mobility.

Towards a unified voice

In the context of UNEA, the Government of Ethiopia has sponsored a resolution on ‘Combating Desertification, Land Degradation and Sustainable Development of Pastoralism and Rangelands’ as one important avenue of transforming pastoralism into a viable livelihood option. The Ethiopian Minister for Environment invited the meeting organisers to contribute to the resolution and work towards submitting it to the UN General Assembly.  A new proposal has been drafted combining this resolution and one submitted earlier by Sudan and Namibia (L.25), encouraging member states to recognise the rights of pastoralists to use land, access resources and social services.  It also urges for an increase in investments in the pastoral livestock sector, among other actions beneficial to pastoral communities.


FAO | Ruth Njeng’ere [email protected] (FAO-Kenya) and [email protected] (FAO-Italy)

ILRI | Dorine Odongo [email protected]

UNEP | Abdelkader Bensada| [email protected]