What pastoralists know

What bankers should learn from the traditions of pastoralism | Aeon Essays
Photo by Frederic Courbet / Panos Pictures

Pastoralists are experts in managing extreme variability. In a volatile world economy, bankers should learn how they do it

Ian Scoones is professor at the Institute of Development Studies, and co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre, both at the University of Sussex in the UK…

Edited by Sam Haselby

What are the connections between a banker working on a trading floor in London and a pastoralist herding animals across the grasslands of East Africa? More than you’d think. Let me explain how they’re connected; and why they can both learn from each other.

Both bankers and pastoralists must, as a matter of course, work with deep, pervasive uncertainty – where they don’t know the probability of future events. Both often confront ignorance – where they don’t know what they don’t know. These conditions of making important decisions amid incertitude require a very distinct approach to navigating day-to-day practices, as well as long-term futures.

Simple risk management is insufficient, as probabilities of events happening can’t be calculated and outcomes are unknown. Navigating pervasive uncertainty has important consequences, suggesting a particular approach to confronting a turbulent world.

Pastoralists keep livestock – camels, cattle, yaks, sheep, goats and other species – using skilled herding on diverse rangelands across the world. While making use of huge areas, pastoralism is in many respects a highly specialised, intensive form of production. Just like bankers, pastoralists specialise in managing variability. They have to because they live in some of the harshest environments on the planet, whether the savannah rangelands of Africa, the mountain pastures and steppes of Asia, or the hills and mountains of Europe and South America.

Although perhaps not as well known as banking, pastoralism also provides an important livelihood for many millions of people in more than 100 countries, involving production from perhaps a billion animals. Indeed, extensive rangelands occupy between 25 and 40 per cent of the world’s surface, and the management of these environments relies on careful grazing, often involving movement between different areas, both between seasons and over years.

For millennia, pastoralists have made a livelihood while accepting uncertainty as central and unavoidable. Sudden shocks, such as droughts, floods or snowfall, can wipe out available pasture and require herders to move to new areas. Every season is different. In Isiolo in northern Kenya, for example, in the past year pastoralists have faced a drought, locust swarms and movement restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rupa Boru is a 39-year-old female pastoralist from near Kinna; in an interview, she said:

We just received rain, but we are on the lookout for disease due to seasonal changes. We live in a cycle of fear, where you are uncertain of how the short dry period will affect the livestock, and then, after the rains, ola (drought) follows. When you move the livestock, the raiders attack and steal them all. It’s a situation where we constantly live with an unknown future.

Lasi Diida from Merti explained his fear of the unknown:

Even though we’ve received rains, we must guard our animals from Somali attacks as well as from wild animals by lighting firewood and staying awake at night. We must constantly stay vigilant of our surroundings.

The pervasive uncertainty of pastoralism encompasses everyday threats, but also longer-term change. A livelihood strategy that can make use of challenging landscapes and variable resources is embedded in pastoral identity and culture. As Apa Salo, a pastoralist from Golok in Amdo Tibet, said:

We pastoralists are lions when we live on the mountains, and we become stray dogs when we come to the lowlands. For pastoralists, livestock and mountain pastures are the gifts from our ancestors. Pastoralists must depend on the rangeland and livestock; these are inseparable.

The key to pastoralists’ survival and prosperity is actively managing uncertainty – not just reactive coping – and maintaining awareness of the dangers of ignorance and surprise.

Pastoralists had always been non-equilibrium ecologists and practitioners

Often, however, outsiders have grossly misunderstood pastoral systems. Early European travellers and colonial anthropologists viewed pastoralism as exotic, wild and unruly. They had no appreciation for pastoralists’ skilled practices. Instead, they blamed them for keeping large herds unnecessarily, damaging the environment and causing degradation and desertification. For many decades, Westerners viewed pastoralism as a backward way of life to be transformed by concepts and plans imported (usually) from settled, temperate contexts that the experts came from. The core ideas imposed came from the United States or Australia – fixed carrying capacities and stocking rates, rotational grazing and fenced paddocks, along with improved pastures and breeds…



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