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Boko Haram threat shifting African pastoralist movements

by Andualem Sisay Gessesse | @andualemsisay | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 June 2015 09:12 GMT

Herders formerly headed for Nigeria are now arriving in Ghana, creating conflicts with farmers, environment chief says

ADDIS ABABA, June 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Worried about attacks by Boko Haram and other armed groups, herders in Africa’s Sahel are abandoning traditional dry-season grazing grounds in Nigeria and converging on Ghana, driving conflict with farmers and worsening deforestation, regional officials say.

“The damage these migrants are causing in Ghana is very, very serious,” said Emmanuel T. Obeng, director of the Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana, at a recent meeting of climate-vulnerable African nations in Addis Ababa.

He said Ghana has received the largest share of the pastoralist herders avoiding Nigeria and other conflict-affected countries in the region.

“My country is carrying more burden,” he said. “As they come with their livestock, they burn the vegetation in Ghana to get fresh grass for their cattle. There have been many conflicts with our people over natural resources, including water and land,” he said in an interview.

Moving herds south in search of pasture in the dry season is an ancient practice in the Sahel, but one under increasing pressure as cross-border Islamist militant groups including Boko Haram, make the annual journey increasingly perilous.

Thousands of Niger’s Fulani nomads, for instance, normally migrate south with their cattle and camels along two key routes: one to Ghana via Togo, Benin and Mali, and another to Nigeria, said Assadek Cham, a councilor at the National Council of Environment and Sustainable Development in Niger.

About 8,000 Tuareg pastoralists in Niger also traditionally use the Nigerian route, he said.

The herders have no choice but to travel each year, he said.

“They move because their environment is not good for them and their animals. What do you do if you have hundreds of cattle and have nothing to feed them?” Cham said.

Besides managing their own animals, many pastoralists also herd south animals belonging to richer people living in Niger’s cities, he said.

“Sometimes one Fulani or Tuareg pastoralist moves with three to four thousand cattle,” he said.

In Ghana, the migrants often cut and burn trees, and crops have also been destroyed, Obeng said. That has in some cases led to Ghanian farmers fleeing their farms.

“As a result (of the influx of migrants), Ghana’s young farmers are now forced to move to urban areas seeking other opportunities for a living,” he said.

The loss of trees also has resulted in land degradation and “had a lot of impact on climate change”, Obeng said.

“I think they are damaging the environment on one hand and also managing it by moving away, giving the chance for the farmers (back home) to farm,” Cham said.

Obeng, of Ghana’s environmental agency, said the way to address the worsening pressures may be to set aside some land in Ghana for the use of migrants.

“We need to manage it by reserving certain areas for these pastoralists coming to Ghana,” he said. Closing borders and stopping movement of the nomads in West Africa is not an option, he said, as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) allows the free movement of people from one member country to another.

Herders also need to be persuaded of the value of protecting trees, and given alternatives to using them, the officials said. But changing attitudes can be “very difficult,” he said.

Protecting trees is crucial, Obeng said, because deforestation in Africa is happening at twice the global average rate, challenging the planets’ effort to keep global warming below a target threshold of 2 additional degrees Celsius.

Desertification and worsening drought are expected to make Africa one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change in coming years, experts say.

Pastoralists have long used traditional livestock and land-management strategies, alongside community support programmes, to manage drought and flood cycles, according to a 2008 Oxfam paper on pastoralists in East Africa.

But “adaptation to climate change also involves the movement of some people out of pastoralism and into other livelihoods,” the paper said.

“As much as pastoralism is in itself a viable economic activity, there is also a need to create alternative livelihoods for women and men who have dropped out of pastoralism, to alleviate the growing population pressure on the land, as well as to increase the range of cash sources available to pastoralist families,” it said.

(Reporting by Andualem Sisay Gessesse; editing by Laurie Goering)

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