Past and future perspectives on pastoralism: my take home messages from PENHA anniversary conference

Bottoms up! 25 years of PENHA!

On Friday I attended the 25th birthday celebration for PENHA (The Pastoral and Environment Network for the Horn of Africa). The birthday conference took place at ODI, who hosted the first meeting of PENHA back in 1989. For the historically minded, the report from the original meeting is available. It was a really great event, and I have a big file of notes from the day and nothing but respect for Zeremariam Fre and his hard working team. Continuing our series of blogs of pastoralist issues, the main messages I will take away are:

There has been a paradigm shift about pastoralism, but what happens now? Research and advocacy in the 1980s and 1990s created a new consensus about pastoralism – showing it to be rational, dynamic and the best way of maximising the potential of arid lands. Pastoralism is now ‘on the map’ of many governments departments, but the lessons of this research has filtered unevenly into policy (and in some cases wilfully ignored). This means there is still a need for a productive conversation between researchers and practitioners.

In my own research I’m very interested in how pastoralist advocates are capitalising on the new policy and discursive spaces created by this paradigm shift to assert the value of pastoralist heritage. So another take home point for me what about how big narratives can cut different ways and have different effects. Climate change is a good example – it can play out positively for pastoralists because it can reinforce the value of dynamic responses to unpredictable environments that characterise dryland pastoral systems (pastoralists can often cope with drought better than farmers). But it can also justify repressive policies to deal with a changing climate – like the need for sedentarisation.

Rumours of the death of pastoralism have been greatly exaggerated. While it is extremely likely that pastoralism will decrease as a percentage of national economies in the next few decades, pastoralism is simply the best livelihood adaptation to arid environments. Even as urbanisation increases in pastoral areas, it will drive a market for meat and milk. For this reason pastoralism, in some shape or form, will continue to be important.

Politics matter, a lot. Pastoralist development is often being treated with technocratic solutions, but this doesn’t make much sense, because most of the problems affecting pastoral communities are politics ones. Alienation of land and new government rhetoric justifying sedentarisation are actually increasing in parts of the greater horn. Yet at the same time, some speakers remarked on what they saw as the depoliticisation of civil society. This is a potentially worrying divergence.

Pastoralists must have a stake in negotiations about their own futures. Its one thing to talk about the future of pastoralism from a nice office in London, and there probably is a place for this in the grander scheme. But who gets to speak and who is spoken for is a centrally important point. Researchers can never stop thinking about this – especially the nature of information exchange and the power asymmetries involved in what we do.

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