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Reverting to pastoralism, East Africa's herders innovate to cope with drought

by Pius Sawa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 11 April 2012 10:34 GMT

?When a drought comes, we move our animals to where there is water and pasture; there is no way we can move our farms to where there is water"

ARUSHA, Tanzania (AlertNet) – In an effort to adapt to chronic shortages of rain, pastoralist communities in east Africa who had experimented with growing crops are reverting to herding livestock.

But they are finding that their traditional approach to pastoralism must adapt to an increasingly stressed environment – and many are coming up with innovative approaches to the changing conditions.

A shifting climate, a growing population, the loss of grazing land to state and private tourism efforts and the introduction of agricultural investment projects are major threats to land security and resources for pastoralists.

Isaiah Nalukendo gave up farming and returned to herding livestock to deal with the effects of a prolonged drought in his village of Terrat, in northern Tanzania’s Manyara region.

For nine years, Nalukendo cultivated 20 hectares (50 acres) of maize and beans. But he has now stopped doing so, particularly as extreme weather conditions make getting a harvest more difficult.

“When I planted the crops they might fail to germinate. And (if) they germinated, they only reached knee height and dried up. It was a total loss to me,” said Nalukendo.


His fellow villager Julius Nduya also has now decided to abandon farming and revert to pastoralism.

Nduya originally cultivated eight hectares (20 acres) of maize and beans, but had to reduce the area because of the poor yields.

“When I started farming in 1993, I used to get 15 bags of maize from one acre. But now I only get two bags due to little rains and too much sunshine,” said Nduya.

He now plants just 1.2 hectares (three acres) to provide food for his family.

“But it is still a waste,” Nduya said. “The maize dries up at knee height.”

Many pastoralists in Tanzania, as in neighbouring Kenya, live in arid and semi-arid areas where annual rainfall is increasingly too little to sustain agriculture. Their governments are emphasising agricultural projects along fertile valleys in the rangelands, but the pastoralists say climatic conditions are generally too harsh for many of them to farm successfully, despite government attempts to encourage agriculture through investment and research in drought-resistant seeds.


With help from the Ujamaa Community Resource Team, a non-government organisation, the region’s Maasai pastoralist community has instead now developed a plan to manage its grazing resources better. Land is divided into separate clusters for agriculture, grazing, wildlife conservation and human settlement.

Nalukendo, who is the chairman of Terrat village, believes the future of the Maasai lies in herding livestock because it gives greater flexibility.

“When a drought comes, we move our animals to where there is water and pasture, but there is no way we can move our farms to where there is water,” he said.

The community has developed strict rules to control the use of increasingly drought-hit pasture. Herders are not allowed to graze their animals in areas reserved for the dry season outside that period, and face heavy penalties if they violate the rules.

The Maasai are not the only pastoralists revisiting the way they manage land. In Kenya’s Eastern Province, the Boran community of Garbatula district also has made adjustments to its traditional approach to grazing.

Garbatula encompasses 10,000 square kilometres (about 3,900 square miles) of mostly arid terrain, with as little as 150-250mm (6-10 inches) of rain annually in the driest zone to the north.

Land is held as common property by the Boran, with a hierarchy of community organisations managing resources including water, grazing areas and wildlife.  


Councils of elders impose punishments on those who misuse resources. Their rulings are traditionally given priority over national laws that are seen by the Boran as challenging these traditional structures.

The Boran have been forced to respond to changing water levels and the reduced availability of pasture. Under a Resource Advocacy Project to manage community land, grazing areas are now divided into four clusters – for the wet season, the dry season, short droughts and long droughts.

The chair of the project, Doud Tari, explained that livestock are moved to the designated dry season pasture when rainfall is normal, because these areas have permanent water points.

But when the rains fail, the animals are herded to the areas reserved for long droughts, which have deep boreholes. Water can be pumped using diesel generators so that the pastoralists can water their livestock.

Priority in the long-drought pastures is given to area residents, said Tari, followed by neighbouring communities, and finally Boran from Ethiopia and Somalia who have crossed into Kenya in search of water and pasture.

During the severe drought of 2009, the Boran were able to save 95 percent of their livestock, including those from Ethiopia and Somalia, by taking them to the long drought pasture, according to Tari.

“We build the strength of our pastoralism by moving where the water is,” said Tari.

While farmers from neighbouring Meru district are suffering when their crops fail as a result of rain shortages, the Boran have turned drought to their advantage, buying the shrivelled maize from their neighbours to feed to their livestock.  

In Laikipia district, in Kenya’s western Rift Valley Province, the Maasai use a system of group ranches to manage their resources. Similar to the Boran clusters, each ranch has areas designated for grazing during dry seasons and normal rainy seasons.

“When a serious drought strikes, we decide on how many animals each member should be allowed to graze in the reserved area,” says Edward Ngoliei, chairman of the Koija group ranch.

The ranchers have also reduced the number of animals each household is allowed to keep to no more than 150 goats and 50 cattle, in order to cope with human population growth and the consequent stress on pasture land and water.


Maria Mashingo, the assistant director of land for livestock development in Tanzania’s ministry of livestock and fisheries development, noted that, globally, rangelands are carbon sinks, absorbing more carbon than they produce.

However, Mashingo added that poor land use may reduce the amount of carbon trapped by rangelands, leading to a net increase of greenhouse gases from the land because of the methane produced by livestock.

Mashingo said that it was important for pastoralists not to overgraze their land, so that overall methane levels are reduced and carbon absorption remains steady.

Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.


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