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Bearing up against climate change in the drylands, how can pastoralists be more resilient?

Photo: Saskia Hendrickx, UF-LSIL (Livestok Lab) / Flickr.

Life can get hard in the drylands. Covering 40% of the Earth’s surface drylands are stamped by water scarcity and dwarfish plant cover. So, it is no wonder that people of the drylands turned to nomadic livestock herding to ensure food supplies. However, pastoralism is not only a means of production, it’s also a rich culture that emerged as a response to the unique environment. In the arid and semi-arid (ASAL) regions of Sub-Saharan Africa development challenges are magnified by population growth. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties even further, bringing about frequent exhausting droughts and sweeping floods. Most investments in the ASAL region focus on response to such disasters. However, according to the latest research, pastoralist can adapt to climate change and slide along development whirlpool if they gain resilience.

The Triple L research initiative investigates the land-use and livelihood transformations in West Pokot, Kenya, over the last three decades. Deborah Muricho, one of the researchers in this initiative has together with her colleagues examined 191 pastoralist households in West Pokot County. Through interviewing pastoralist households, Deborah and her colleagues identified key characteristics that effectively build resilience. These include road infrastructure, livestock improvement centres, access to education and indigenous learning and livelihood diversification options, like camel rearing and beekeeping.

Photo: Zerihun Sewunet (ILRI) / Flickr.

In this interview, Deborah explains some of the key findings from her research that resulted in a recently published research paper and two policy briefs, supported through SIANI Expert Group seed funding.

Q: What will be the role of pastoralism, considering that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

DM: For most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa pastoralism is still a viable source of income. But at the same time, we can’t ignore the need to cut emissions. Pastoralism can in fact sequester carbon if the grazing lands are managed sustainably, making sure that the carrying capacity of the land is not exceeded. Another way to sequester carbon in the soils is through manure management, which can boost crop production and increase soil microbial biomass. We are certain that the livestock sector will continue to grow in response to the growing population and economic development, which will, in turn, increase the demand for livestock products. Therefore, sustainable livestock management is key!

Q: How can the grazing lands be managed sustainably?

DM: Pastoralism depends on natural resources, like grassland and water. About 12 % of the land in Kenya is degraded, most of which is grassland. The main reason for this is unsustainable land management practices which exceed the carrying capacities of the land. This is especially common during droughts when the grazing land availability is low, which leads to land degradation. The Triple L research initiative investigated the restoration of degraded land through enclosures – areas that are kept without livestock grazing for a while to allow for revegetation. By doing this we see that the land is restored, the soil structure is improved, and the land becomes more vigorous – producing more forage for the livestock. This also increases resilience by providing a reliant source of feed for the animals.

Q: What are the family structures in herder communities? How can alternative incomes be integrated into this lifestyle?

DM: In Sub-Saharan Africa we see that there is a tendency that bigger animals fall to male responsibility. For example, there are many cultural restrictions regarding cattle which is very male dominated, but both men and women can share responsibilities in smaller livestock, like sheep or goats. Poultry is considered mainly as a responsibility for the women, as well as milking the cattle. Since it’s the women who usually are responsible for food security, women can be empowered through the management of poultry and milking. If we help them to improve their production through better and smarter techniques, their households will be more well off, especially if they also can sell their surplus.

Q: How can the private sector support pastoralism?

DM: The private sector can contribute through the value chain approach where the relevant stakeholders can be brought together to pursue synergies. For example, Triple L had a project where Vi-Agroforestry trained farmers on climate adaptation strategies and, as a result, the farmers have become more resilient to the effect of climate change and they also receive carbon credit through their agroforestry practice. Additionally, a milk processing company offered to buy milk from the farmers who adopted climate smart practices for a better price than on the market. We can see that the private sector is coming aboard.

Q: At last, is there anything else you would like people to know about pastoralism?

DM: As we have seen there is a need for livestock products and it is important to understand the unique challenges the pastoralists are facing. Having a bottom-up approach will bring more desirable benefits to adaptation since the pastoralists have well-established institutions and practices that help them to adapt and mitigate climate shocks. Researchers need to figure out the way to strengthen the already existing structures, instead of coming from outside with interventions. At the same time, it is important to consider that these institutions are dynamic and are affected by population growth and other factors. So, we need to continually investigate the transforming societies and the conditions in the drylands.

Download the policy brief