Thursday, September 30, 2010

Culling and Pastoral Resistance to Thinning Herds during the Current Crisis

NGOs are recently frustrated over pastoralist non-compliance in selling animals to cull their herds during the current drought in the central and eastern Sahel. From the NGO perspective, they are empowering pastoralists through allowing a market where herders can receive the needed cash to buy essential grains. NGOs are attempting to buy sheep and goats for 20,000 F CFA (~ 40 USD) each and cattle for 75, 000 F CFA (~150 USD) each as reported from IRIN News (see ).These figures, if reported accurately, are not the average prices for these animals and may be contributing to the difficulties experienced by NGOs. The money being offered for sheep and goats is 150 to 200% the average price during non-drought periods. Sheep and goats are commonly owned by women and lower castes in pastoral societies. By contrast, the price being offered for cattle which men of noble standing own is 50% the average price. This may be an attempt by NGOs to empower those more vulnerable in this crisis, but it may also contribute to gender and societal conflicts within these societies. There are, however, other forces with political roots working against a healthy relation between NGOs and pastoralists.

NGO administrations as well as other key policy makers have notions of the Sahel as a ‘fragile ecosystem’ and, that social and ethnic customs encourage the overstocking of flocks. NGOs are certainly well-intentioned in terms of their goals of poverty alleviation and the proper stewardship of natural resources, but their misunderstanding and misinterpretation of pastoral actions is nothing new. They are repeating the same discourse of colonial and post-colonial agents who used these arguments to impose their power and jurisdiction over natural resources upon local populations in the past. It is tragic that they are reverting to these old doctrines while a crisis unfolds as there is a need to take action to save lives and peoples’ livelihoods. Pastoralists, in response to the NGO presence, have shown and continue to show a considerable amount of resistance to outside interference. They have seen outsiders come to their encampments before, and expect them to leave in the immediate future.

At the risk of over-generalizing the gravity of the current situation in the Sahel, I would like to provide some insight from my own research regarding why pastoralists maintain their herd sizes, even at the risk of losing most if not all their animals. They have coped with crises before and while the situation is bad in places like Tombouctou and Gao for the moment, herders in these regions have experienced worse and are dealing appropriately to seasonal variability. Some parts of the Sahara and Sahel experienced insufficient rains but other areas are now receiving ample rainfall and many pastoralists are migrating to these locations. This involves more work, greater distances to travel and with some families sending a member to the urban areas for wage labor or other income generating activities. Holding onto their animals is both a means of socioeconomic security and an act of cultural and familial stability.

Pastoralists prefer to maintain their flocks more so than reduce them during periods of stress. NGOs may have their own ideas as to what number is a ‘healthy stock number’ but they are not generally reporting these figures unless there is a crisis like drought or disease. Animals die in both good and bad periods, but pastoralists are more likely to cull during a good season when their flocks are not endangered. Pastoralists, of course, have concerns of losing animals without any returns. If they are struggling with a flock size that is already reduced like what is happening in northern Mali at present, however, pastoralists prefer to maintain their animals instead of selling them. This is because of near future concerns like losing what remains of their flocks when ‘non-drought’ incidents like accidents, disease or theft strike their encampments.

Other factors contributing to pastoral abstinence to culling is experiences pastoralists have had with NGOs in the past. The record with NGOs is not stellar as aid that came in the 1970s drought-famine was riddled with mismanagement, favoritism, and corruption working to government employees’ favor. Aid in the 1980s drought-famine saw adjustments and improvements in management but difficulties still existed. The distribution was riddled with high transportation costs and rarely arrived to numbers greatly affected by the drought. In addition, nonfood aid in the 1970s and 1980s was often incompatible with pastoral livelihoods.

The rebellions of the 1990s in Mali and Niger and on-and-off civil wars in Sudan and Chad have also created a fragmentation of projects and NGO presence. NGOs that are interested in improving living conditions of large numbers of Africans are likely to withdraw from areas such as these for not only security reasons but to devote their limited resources to areas where personnel, funds, and resources produce greater results. Pastoralists are no strangers to this experience, as NGOs have come in and out of their territories for over 40 years.

So from a pastoralist perspective, to cull their herds even when prices are subsidized by NGOs and government agencies is a greater risk than enduring the latest drought. Most choose instead to migrate large distances for pasture and water, stretch out their food supplies, and work laboriously to maintain the health of their animals. To sell their animals, while it may provide the money needed to buy staple food products, creates a situation of greater vulnerability to the drought if it continues, or to non-related climatic events like banditry, disease and accidents claiming the remainder of their herds.

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