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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Recognising the specific nature of pastoral populations in Sahel.

Documents of reference

Merlet, Michel. « Cahier de propositions. Politiques foncières et Réformes agraires ». IRAM, APM, FPH. Octobre 2002. 134 p. (downloadable at the bottom of this page, in French and in English [2007 AGTER’s version])

Up until the 19th century, pastoral societies played a predominant role in the economic, social and political life of the Sahel1 region. Colonialism followed by the creation and development of African nation-states has brought hardship and marginalisation upon pastoralists. These societies clearly have trouble adapting to the new political climate. Are we to assume the herders’ way of life is fundamentally incompatible with modernity?

Without doubt, this is an exaggerated yet unfortunately widespread point of view that has caused much misunderstanding. Rather than trying to force highly diverse rural societies to all fit one mould for a rural farming community, wouldn’t it be wiser to accept that a variety of situations exists and that pastoral populations have their own specific characteristics? Moreover, rather than stigmatising singularities and oppositions, wouldn’t it be better to strive for genuine unity by acknowledging diversity? To this end, we recommend here the recognition of three aspects: the interdependency of societies, pastoral mobility and the herdsmen’s rights to move around according to their own logic.

Interdependent societies

Pastoralism has greatly suffered due to its image as an archaic activity practised by isolated people that refuse to belong to larger groups and resist in different ways, ranging from frantic escape to open revolt. This perception stems from preconceived notions of the superiority of grain cultivation. This is why any effort to convert natural grazing land into cultivated fields is considered as a step towards a more civilised society.

In reality, we see that this is not always as simple: in certain cases, raising crops can hasten land degradation and disturb the equilibrium between farming systems, which suddenly appears more delicate than previously thought. In fact, we are looking at genuine interdependencies between neighbouring societies, between farming systems and between areas in synergy with each other. Real economic exchanges as well as matrimonial and political alliances were made between herdsmen and crop farmers, whose traces are still visible. Obviously, their world was not idyllic, neither was it bereft of various forms of domination and conflict. However, conflicts more frequently generated alliances between nomads and sedentary farmers in opposition to other nomad-farmer alliances more often than they caused populations to enter into blatant confrontation with one another.

These interdependencies have favoured the development of complementary relationships: the weakest parts of the farmer-herdsman alliances are assisted by the strongest parts during times of hardship. Far from closing in on themselves, the herdsmen have always needed others: farmers and exchange partners near and far.

Today, rather than giving in to the sirens of simplification, which are easily manipulated and destroy the social fabric, it is better to recognise the usefulness of interdependencies. In order to reach a compromise and consensus at the local level, new forms of cooperation need to be negotiated. The best way of ensuring the security of one’s own rights is to recognise those of others. Thus, it is on the basis of this mutual recognition that a new form of unity can emerge out of diversity.

Pastoral mobility

This is an essential feature of pastoral systems.

Sometimes it is the herds that dictate this movement, while at others it is dictated by both man and beast. The nomadic way of life can take many different forms, such a group of herdsmen covering a more or less limited region, migrations along more or less regular routes that permit the use of different and complementary areas depending on the season and available resources (water, grazing fodder, salt, etc.). This mobility always relies on freedom of movement, and is an indispensable condition in regions subject to variations and fluctuations. Furthermore, mobility is related to the social relations that each group maintains with its more or less distant neighbours, keeping in mind security issues. Many observers now recognise that this is an advantage of pastoral practises, as they permit both the sustainable utilisation of scattered resources and improved animal productivity (reproduction, dairy, meat, etc.).

In many places however, this mobility is increasingly threatened. On the one had, the reduction of pastureland, the disappearance of migration routes and stopping points and the tendency of certain groups to monopolise watering holes endanger the herders’ way of life. On the other hand, it is threatened by inappropriate legislation, which is poorly adapted to herding. Consequently, this mobility now requires that specific rights to land use and rules be recognised as part of the common heritage of the peoples concerned.

The right of nomadic herdsmen to progress

The exotic and exaggerated image of nomadic herdsmen living in symbiosis with their livestock and their natural environment, far from towns and the concerns of the modern world is tantamount to freezing them in time, keeping them in a sort of reservation, and marginalising them so completely that they will end up one day in the misery of the slum.

Fortunately, many pastoralists have realised the danger that such confining exoticism presents. They now want storage and supply warehouses, adapted means of transport, schools for their children (hitherto condemned to illiteracy) and healthcare centres. They sometimes grow crops in addition to livestock breeding, but more than ever, they want to be considered as being linked to a home grazing territory, where they have decided to settle and over which they are considered to have specific rights (whose nature remains to be defined). In parallel, they want to maintain the possibilities of accessing more remote grazing lands.

The above does not exactly amount to sedentarisation. They continue to practice nomadic grazing part of the year, but they are determined to leave their mark at a site selected in their former space, before they are totally pushed to the margins where life will swiftly become untenable. Thus, they seek to combine a settled home for their families with the mobility of the major portion of their herds (leaving only a few dairy cows in the settled part). This evolution, following the droughts of the 70s and 80s is continuing. We think that it deserves to be acknowledged, since it originates with the herders themselves. It already appears to have favoured better political integration at decision-making levels, and it should also promote the development of community awareness among herdsmen.

This threefold recognition should go a long way toward improving the involvement of nomadic groups, with all of the neighbours and actors concerned, for a more pertinent definition of the rights and reciprocal obligations regarding land.


Translation to English : Mary Rodeghier aGter


Marty, André et al, « Les régimes fonciers pastoraux: études et propositions », Secrétariat permanent du code rural, FIDA, Niger, 1990, 107p.

Marty, André, « La délimitation des parcours », Dans « Quelles politiques foncières pour l’Afrique rurale ? Réconcilier, pratiques, légitimité et légalité », Sous la direction de Philippe Lavigne Delville, Paris, Karthala - Coopération française, 1998, pages 504 à 511.

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