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Adaptation to Current and Future Climate in Pastoral Communities Across Africa

Summary and Keywords

Pastoralists around the world are exposed to climate change and increasing climate variability. Various downscaled regional climate models in Africa support community reports of rising temperatures as well as changes in the seasonality of rainfall and drought. In addition to climate, pastoralists have faced a second exposure to unsupportive policy environments. Dating back to the colonial period, a lack of knowledge about pastoralism and a systemic marginalization of pastoral communities influenced the size and nature of government investments in pastoral lands. National governments prioritized farming communities and failed to pay adequate attention to drylands and pastoral communities. The limited government interventions that occurred were often inconsistent with contemporary realities of pastoralism and pastoral communities. These included attempts at sedentarization and modernization, and in other ways changing the priorities and practices of pastoral communities.

The survival of pastoral communities in Africa in the context of this double exposure has been a focus for scholars, development practitioners, as well as national governments in recent years. Scholars initially drew attention to pastoralists’ drought-coping strategies, and later examined the multiple ways in which pastoralists manage risk and exploit unpredictability. It has been learned that pastoralists are rational land managers whose experience with variable climate has equipped them with the skills needed for adaptation. Pastoralists follow several identifiable adaptation paths, including diversification and modification of their herds and herding strategies; adoption of livelihood activities that did not previously play a permanent role; and a conscious decision to train the next generation for nonpastoral livelihoods. Ongoing government interventions around climate change still prioritize cropping over herding. Sometimes, such nationally supported adaptation plans can undermine community-based adaptation practices, autonomously evolving within pastoral communities. Successful adaptation hinges on recognition of the value of autonomous adaptation and careful integration of such adaptation with national plans.

Keywords: mobility, diversification, market exchange, conflict


Pastoralism plays a key role in national economies across the continent (Catley et al., 2013). Economic benefits include income earned from the sale of livestock and livestock products, domestic and international trade stimulated by pastoralism, as well as the provision of raw materials to various local industries. In addition, pastoralism provides a livelihood to an estimated 50 million herders and supplements the livelihoods of another 200 million agropastoralists in arid and semiarid areas of Africa (FAO, 2012).

Across Africa, pastoralists have felt the impact of climate change and increasing climate variability. Many scholars conclude that mean annual temperatures over most of the continent have increased in the last century (Hulme et al., 2001; Nicholson et al., 2013; Stern et al., 2011). Where reliable precipitation data are available, scholars find that annual amounts have decreased in parts of northern Africa and the Sahel, and increased in eastern and southern Africa in the last century (Barkhordarian et al., 2013; Hession & Moore, 2011; Mohamed, 2011). In addition to long-term climate trends, there is also a high degree of spatial and temporal variation in precipitation across Africa (Schilling et al., 2012). Pastoralists experience these changes in temperature, precipitation, and variability in the form of an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts and a related reduction in recovery time.

Pastoralists also contend with other stressors on their livelihoods that may be exacerbated by climate change and increasing variability. Today’s pastoralists control much less land than their ancestors did, and this land loss or “encapsulation” of their livelihood (Evangelou, 1984) is one factor that has left them more vulnerable to climate change and variability (Galvin, 2009). However, they also live in an ever-changing political and economic context that presents new opportunities for them. Adaptive practices are therefore driven by the combination of specific opportunities and constraints in each location. Even when a practice is taken up as a result of nonclimate stimuli, it can still serve as an adaptation to climate change and variability by reducing the vulnerability context of an individual, family or community.

Today many scholars see the advent of pastoralist systems themselves as an adaptation to dryland environmental conditions that go back to the Holocene (Oba, 2014; Bollig & Schnegg, 2013; Kuper & Kröpelin, 2006). This was not always the case. The paper starts with a brief explanation of what the terms “pastoralism” and “adaptation” mean. This explanation is followed by an examination of how colonial conceptions of pastoralism framed the livelihood as responsible for environmental degradation. Such conceptions left no room to examine adaptive qualities of pastoralism, and the livelihood was seen as incompatible with adaptation. The paper then goes on to examine pastoralism through the lens of early and midcentury cultural ecology. This approach examined pastoralism as a livelihood that was functionally adapted to the climate and ecological conditions in which it was practiced. With the growing interest in adaptation as a core concern of climate change scholarship since 2000, the study of pastoralist adaptation is increasingly examined in light of climate science analyses of changes in variability and projections of future change. In light of recent scholarship, the paper concludes with a reflection on future adaptations.

Definition of Terms

Pastoralism has been defined in many different ways (e.g., Dong, 2016; Galaty, 1996; Ingold, 2009; Oba, 2014; Salzman, 2004). Definitions tend to recognize the reliance on livestock and “natural” pastures as critical in setting pastoralism apart from other livelihood systems. An analysis of adaptation in pastoralist communities necessarily involves exploration of intertwined elements of continuity and change. For present purposes, Bollig and Schnegg’s (2013) excellent discussion of what constitutes pastoralism serves as a model. They suggest that the degree of investment in herding labor, capital, and world-view are the three continua that determine the degree to which an individual or community is pastoralist. This categorization of pastoralism allows an inclusion of individuals or communities who have diversified their assets toward nonlivestock capital and who spend much of their labor on nonherding activities, but still maintain a world-view in which livestock remain key.

The definition of adaptation presented here is borrowed from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which states that it is “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (Noble et al., 2014, p. 838). Schmidt-Thomé (2017) provides a typology of adaptation that includes two types of adaptation relevant to this paper: spontaneous adaptation and planned adaptation. Climate change adaptation can happen spontaneously as people act in response to climate stimuli and other social, economic, and political constraints and opportunities. In contrast, planned adaptation is the product of policies and program interventions by state and nonstate actors in response to climate stimuli or in anticipation of expected climate stimuli. Indeed, there are multiple ways to characterize adaptation, including whether they are reactive or anticipatory, short term or long-term, localized or widespread (Smit et al., 2000).

Framing the Link Between Pastoralism and Environmental Degradation

Late 19th-century accounts by European travelers describe vegetation that has been altered by pastoralists in various ways (Oba, 2014). However, 20th-century analysis of these descriptions downplayed pastoralists’ modification of landscapes and instead discussed them as unaltered by humans. What emerged from the analyses was the idea of the existence of a pristine nature or “wilderness” in Africa (and elsewhere in the world) that is devoid of human influence (Neumann, 1998). Such “untouched” wilderness was thought to provide the ideal habitat for Africa’s diverse wildlife. Following this logic, the presence of pastoralists on the landscape could only be viewed in negative terms as it automatically eliminates the ideal of “pristine nature.”

The negative perception of pastoralists on the landscape was cemented by the science of the time, most notably Clements’s classical ecological theory (Clements, 1916). Clements described a theory of linear vegetation change where a site would ultimately develop into a climax vegetation type if left undisturbed. Where disturbances such as grazing were present, only a subclimax vegetation would develop. Ecological theory provided a pretext for defining the mission of rangeland managers. It was the duty of Western-trained range managers to find an optimal number of livestock for the natural successional trajectory of the landscape (Scoones, 1996). This school of thought saw environmental degradation as the logical outcome when the stocking rate exceeds an area’s carrying capacity. One important way that the carrying capacity can be exceeded is when pastoralists keep large herds. The presence of pastoralists and their herds on the landscape were viewed as upsetting nature’s equilibrium and leading to environmental degradation in the form of overgrazing and trampling by livestock. Such explanations can be found in the work of botanists working in the Horn of Africa, including Jennings and Addison (1905), Pichi-Sermolli (1955), and Hemmings (1966). It is notable that Garret Hardin chose to illustrate the “tragedy of the commons” with “herdsmen” (Hardin, 1968), an illustration that further advanced the perception of pastoralists as responsible for environmental degradation.

Scoones (1996) presents detailed accounts of two scholars who were based in southern Africa in the 1930s and greatly influenced how pastoralism was viewed by natural scientists and the colonial state. Typical of other scholars of African pastoralism of European origin, Illtyd Pole-Evans and John Philips were greatly influenced by linear understanding of successional vegetation dynamics. Also, typical was their passion for vegetation conservation and their view that pastoralism was incompatible with biological conservation. Pole-Evans traveled widely in colonial Africa, spreading his message and advising governments on range management. Philips was an influential professor of botany who trained a generation of southern African scholars on range management and conservation ideals. His students would later spread these ideals across Africa. Even when a few of these early scholars (e.g., Pichi-Sermolli, 1955; Thompson, 1943) acknowledged that climate change played a role in the changes in vegetation cover, they saw the role as negligible when weighed against the impact of the pastoralists. A similar degradation narrative was present in French colonial Africa. Davis (2007) traces this narrative of environmental decline that is blamed on nomadic pastoralism in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. As in other parts of Africa, the degradation narrative in French colonial Africa is woven together by colonial administrators, scientists, settlers, and the military, with the ultimate goal of controlling the land, resources, and people of North Africa.

Events and factors outside of Africa also had an impact on scholarly understanding of pastoralist systems. Environmental degradation processes in other parts of the world and a growing conservation ethic promoted an interest in the examination of overstocking among pastoralists. The most notable of such external processes was the dust bowl of the 1930s in the United States. Environmental historians working in Africa have demonstrated how environmental degradation narratives related to the dust bowl informed conservation policy in South Africa (e.g., Philips, 1999) and British East Africa (e.g., Anderson, 1984). There was a perceived threat of soil loss on a massive scale, requiring the implementation of intervention measures across Africa to guard against it. Control of pastoralist movements and measures to limit herd sizes would become an important part of such interventions.

This narrative of the negative ecological impact of pastoralists and livestock became more prominent following regional droughts. For example, after the 1948 drought, Namibia established the Long Term Agricultural Policy Commission of 1948, which was concerned about soil degradation. Among its conclusions was that “the limit in carrying capacity . . . had been reached” (cited in Botha, 2013, p. 238). Similarly, after the 1919–1920 drought in South Africa, livestock losses were devastating. The South African Drought Investigation Commission blamed these losses on poor veld and stock management practices. The commission presented the following view on pastoralism:

Overgrazing, overstocking, herding, and scarcity of drinking places, and the kraaling of animals at night had deteriorated the vegetal covering, reducing the ground’s capacity to hold water. Rain rushed over the bare earth, carving dongas and sweeping away the plant-anchoring capacity of the soil.

(Philips, 1999, p. 258)

In short, colonial researchers largely viewed pastoralism and pastoralists as a potentially dangerous driver of environmental degradation that required European expertise and intervention to solve. A strong motivation to return to the African savannah’s “pristine nature” became a high priority during the colonial period. Colonial administrators believed they would achieve this ideal through the control and modification of pastoralism as it was practiced.

The “Pastoralist Problem” and Colonial Intervention

Colonial interventions that influenced pastoralism can be broadly categorized into two groups. In the first group were interventions that restricted mobility through spatial control and land alienation. Although such policies did not always directly target pastoralism, they contributed to the colonial conceptualization of the “pastoral problem” of conflict and land degradation. Second were interventions that directly targeted pastoralists, with a view to solving the pastoral problem. Such interventions limited the adaptive capacity of pastoralists and further cemented the negative perception of pastoralists and pastoralism.

Colonial rule in Africa was formalized through the drawing of geodetic lines to establish territories among competing European powers, in complete disregard of any African peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Because these lines dissected expansive dryland areas in every subregion of the continent, these new boundaries had consequences for pastoralists across the continent. For example, by 1960, the Somali pastoralists of East Africa found themselves split across four countries: French Somaliland, the Somali Republic, Ethiopia, and Kenya (Lewis, 1965). Movement across geodetic lines was restricted. As a result, international boundaries unintentionally split grazing territories previously available to a pastoral group into different countries.

In addition, many other pastoralist groups were confined within internally established territories and were also unable to reach previous grazing territories. Such internal boundaries were the product of policies that established a physical barrier on the ground. This was the case with the construction of the veterinary cordon fence separating central and southern Namibia from the north and limiting livestock movement (Miescher, 2012). At other times, internal restrictions on movements came indirectly out of policies on taxation that were widespread on the continent. For example, when the British Protectorate was established in West Africa, the District Administration collected cattle taxes, hence limiting entry into areas that had previously been available to Fulbe pastoralists (Stenning, 1960). Often, new colonial administrations instituted land alienation policies that were an important part of the colonial project in Africa. This is illustrated by the displacement of the Nama- and Damara-speaking communities of western Namibia who lost land to commercial farming and the government’s apartheid policies (Schnegg, Pauli, & Greiner, 2013).

Overall, this systematic denial of access reduced pastoralists’ capacity to utilize a variable landscape, as they were unable to access part of their pasture. This in turn brought hardships related to water shortages and exacerbated overgrazing and soil erosion (Gulliver, 1965). These outcomes further cemented previously established ideas about pastoralism and the link to environmental degradation. Pastoralism was not seen as a system in tune with natural variability, but one which degrades. Thus little scholarly attention was given to its evolution and interaction with environmental conditions. In short, the perception that pastoralism was incompatible with adaptation remained the received wisdom during the colonial period.

In addition to environmental degradation, the colonial administration was also concerned with conflict between pastoral groups and their neighbors. Bollig and Schnegg (2013) and Oba (2014) provide analyses of such conflicts and demonstrate their complex roots. However, as the colonial administrators in colonial Kenya saw it, conflict between groups came about as a result of resource scarcity, with different groups fighting over grazing and water resources (Oba, 2014). The work of some anthropologists advanced this narrative of pastoralists. For example, based on fieldwork carried out in 1955–1957, Lewis (1965) describes Somali pastoralists as “warlike” and adds that “competition over access to water and pasture readily engenders disputes and bloody feuds that smoulder for generations” (p. 326). Similarly, D’Hertefelt (1965) describes the Tutsi pastoralists of Rwanda as a warrior caste. Colonial interventions put in place were thus designed to solve the dual problem of environmental degradation and conflict between groups.

Once the dual problem of pastoralism was defined, experts were hired to find a solution. This move to rely on external experts was couched in modernization theory, which came with a general “disdain for any form of local, especially African, knowledge” (Botha, 2005, p. 171). In East Africa, grassland and water specialists helped establish large-scale grazing schemes which followed a Texas-ranch model. The goal of the model was to balance stock with available pasture and water resources and consequently address degradation. A secondary goal was to limit mobility and interaction between different pastoral groups. In northern Kenya, different pastoralist groups were allocated their own grazing and watering resources in order to curtail their mobility and limit contact and conflict with other groups (Oba, 2014). In East Africa, Jie pastoralists were forced to live in permanent settlements in order to minimize conflict between neighboring groups (Gulliver, 1965). Among the Himba of Namibia, the apartheid government drilled over 400 boreholes beginning in 1954 as part of a larger project to address environmental degradation through the modernization of livestock husbandry. In other parts of Africa, modernization included an introduction of exotic livestock breeds and cross-breeds which have higher meat and milk yields (Wangui, 2008). Decisions to modernize were arrived at through the work of “scientists, especially geologists, hydrologists and agriculturalists [who] became influential and grounded much of the political decision-making process with data” (Bollig, 2013, p. 323).

Most newly independent states did little to change colonial attitudes and policies toward pastoralists. Swift’s account of the Sahelian pastoralists of West Africa demonstrates this continuity in policies (Swift, 1977). Since these newly independent states relied heavily on their former colonizers for development aid, this continuation of colonial policies should not be surprising. In addition, the political elite had a colonial attitude toward pastoralism acquired through the colonial education system. Policies therefore continued to promote exotic breeds and emphasize sedentarization and destocking for the benefit of both development and conservation (Davis, 2005a). Exotic breeds and cross-breeds generally had a lower tolerance for drought and frequently succumbed to the livestock diseases endemic to African countries.

Negative attention toward pastoralism was especially prevalent following the devastating droughts of the early 1970s. As had happened in the aftermath of previous regional droughts, the narrative of land degradation associated with pastoralists and livestock became especially prominent. The concept of desertification emerged and was given a global platform in the 1977 United Nations Conference on Desertification. Combating desertification was on the agenda of many development interventions targeting drylands. Hiernaux and Turner (2002) would later find that the risks of desertification in pastoralist systems in West Africa were “moderate and mainly climate-driven” (p. 135). This position was in direct opposition to previous thinking that laid blame for land degradation on the management decisions made by pastoralists. Further, Ash et al. (2002) argue that what was characterized as desertification in West Africa may not have had a negative impact on the production of grazing systems.

In countries where wildlife tourism was an important source of foreign exchange, mobility was further constrained by continued expansion of wildlife conservation areas (Evangelou, 1984). State violence sometimes accompanied wildlife conservation efforts, further constraining pastoralists’ livelihoods and adaptive capacity (Neumann, 1998). Overall, remnants of the colonial policies are still present on the continent today. However, the way pastoralism is understood has undergone important shifts, as is next explored.

From the “Pastoralist Problem” to Pastoralism as Adaptation

In opposition to earlier perceptions of pastoralism, several schools of thought converged to redefine pastoralism as adaptation. These include the work of social scientists from anthropology, sociology, and geography, many of whom follow the cultural and political ecology theoretical frameworks. Equally important is new ecological thinking that challenged stable state equilibrium theories.

One of the earliest works to focus attention on pastoral peoples as opposed to pastoral landscapes was Herskovits (1926). He defines an “East African cattle area” that spans eastern and southern Africa and provides a detailed account of the cultural importance of cattle to their owners in this area. Herskovits’s account primarily focuses on describing similarities between ethnic groups in the way they value cattle. He describes a love for cattle that extends to a “love for the very grass the cattle eat” (p. 259). His account of pastoralism has been criticized for not providing an ecological or economic rationale for his much-cited “cattle complex” (e.g., Netting, 1986). Herskovits also does not recognize any underlying systems of ecological knowledge tied to the rituals that he discusses involving grass. However, his research is noteworthy for providing a detailed anthropological focus on pastoral people. His research set the stage for subsequent work by cultural and political ecologists who examined pastoralism through a nature–society lens to reveal pastoral practices as intentional herd manipulation that represents both a response to ecological conditions and emerging economic concerns.

Cultural ecologists’ critiques of Herskovits’s work focused on debunking his rationale that pastoralists keep cattle out of love for the animals. In so doing, cultural ecologists examined the ecological conditions in which pastoralism is practiced. The low and erratic rainfall totals in pastoral areas made them unreliable and unpredictable for crop farming. Livestock mobility allowed pastoralists to evade climatic challenges that are a characteristic of these areas. Several authors argued that without pastoralism such areas would remain relatively unused by humans since they were too marginal for reliable rain-fed crop farming (Aschmann, 1965; Porter, 1965). This argument was premised on previous research on Nuer pastoralists of South Sudan (Evans-Pritchard, 1940), Jie herders of Uganda, and Turkana herders of Kenya (Gulliver, 1955). In this sense, cultural ecologists redefined pastoralism as a “recurrent adaptation to steppes, deserts, and dry savannahs” (Netting, 1986, p. 44).

Later, ecologists would investigate the forage quality of the grasses, forage patterns of cattle and livestock weight gain, and calving rates to reveal the advantages of the Sahel for livestock production (Breman & de Wit, 1983; Haaland, 1977). Ecological thinking experienced a paradigmatic shift from previous conceptions of stable state equilibrium models and a pristine nature. This new ecology emphasized the role of disturbance and saw arid environments as being in disequilibrium (Ellis & Swift, 1988; Behnke & Scoones, 1992; Behnke et al., 1993; Swift, 1994; Oba et al., 2000; Reid, 2012). The presence of rainfall variability and other disturbance in Africa’s arid environments produces ecological communities that shift between different unstable states. In addition, Ash et al. (2002) demonstrate that previous “coupling” of livestock population and soil and vegetation dynamics associated with land degradation varied considerably over space and time. This new ecology and de-coupling of livestock and degradation legitimized pastoral vegetation management strategies that had previously been vilified.

From detailed ethnographic research primarily done by anthropologists, some previously less understood aspects of pastoralism became clearer. First, mobility was revealed to be systematic and not simply random wanderings. For example, the work of anthropologists Rada and Neville Dyson-Hudson among the Karimojong in Uganda and Stenning among the Fulbe of West Africa demonstrate that pastoralists’ mobility patterns did not simply follow the rains. Rather, the decision of when to move and where was influenced by the nutritional value of the grasses, edaphic factors, ecological conditions that produce livestock pests and diseases, as well as relations with neighboring communities (Dyson-Hudson, 1972; Dyson-Hudson & Dyson-Hudson, 1969; Stenning, 1960). Pastoralists’ ability to use the land was dependent on the accumulation and constant updating of “a detailed knowledge of specific tracts of country; their characteristic pasture and terrain; their endowment of standing, running, or well water; the incidence of tsetse, ticks, and biting flies . . . movements of other Pastoral Fulani whose herds may compete for pasture or water, or bring disease . . . the sedentary populations through which [the pastoralists] pass; the extent of their [sedentary populations] farmland, the suitability of their markets, the friendship or animosity of their chiefs” (Stenning, 1960, p. 148).

Second, although pastoralism accumulation strategies were previously taken to be irrational since the herds kept were large, social scientists in the 1960s and 1970s would demonstrate the logic of the large herd. These scientists include Spencer (1965) writing about the Samburu of Kenya, Deshler (1965) working among the Dodos of Uganda, and Dahl and Hjort (1976). Large herds were a form of insurance against a variable climate or disease epidemics that would sometimes kill off a significant proportion of the herd. During the dry season when milk yields were low, more cattle were needed to lower the risk of food insecurity. Lewis (1965) further examines diversity within Somali herds and describes the significance of each type of animal kept. The herd included sheep, goats, camels, cattle, donkeys, and horses, a configuration that was well adapted to the variability associated with drylands.

Third, Stenning’s (1960) research on the types of mobility practiced by the Fulbe over the short and long term asserts that “overgrazing is a short term phenomenon, obviated almost automatically by alterations in transhumance tracks” (p. 150). This is in direct contradiction of previous assertions of overgrazing promoted by the colonial administration and newly independent states across Africa. These administrators saw overgrazing as a persistent condition of grazing areas that needed external intervention to overcome. Stenning illustrates a method used by the Fulbe to ensure that overgrazed areas would be given time to recover. He explains how a Fulbe clan changed their seasonal grazing grounds one step at a time, until a completely new grazing radius developed. Stenning refers to this process as “migratory drift.” Once migratory drift occurs, the Fulbe adapt their breeds to the local conditions of the new grazing areas through cross-breeding and cattle exchanges. Rather than being irresponsible land users whose practices cause degradation, Stenning demonstrated how a pastoral group slowly adapted their grazing circuit to allow environmental recovery.

Fourth, the emphasis on conflict between groups did not include a thorough understanding of the full range of relations that exist between communities. There are numerous accounts of mutual relations between pastoralist groups and their farming neighbors that allowed pastoralism to survive as a livelihood. Stenning (1960) and Forde (1960) both demonstrate how the Fulbe lived among the Bambara and Hausa in West Africa, and frequently exchanged cattle for farm products or grazing rights. Similarly, Lovejoy and Baier (1975) characterize interactions between pastoral Tuareg and their sedentary neighbors as “peaceful cooperation and trade, with raiding confined for the most part to the periphery” (p. 554). Such interactions between farming and herding communities are now recognized as an important adaptation to climate change and variability.

Such closer examination of mobility, accumulation strategies, and conflict lay the groundwork for current examination of pastoralism and adaptation to climate change and variability. Pastoralists are adapting to climate change and variability, as is discussed next.

Recent Evidence: How Pastoralists Adapt to Climate Change

Themes in Pastoralism and Adaptation

Research on pastoralism and adaptation reveals certain themes that are important to address before discussing the specific adaptive practices used. First, the suite of adaptive practices taken up by any community depends on their specific context. For example, in most of the literature, a trend of pastoralist livelihood encapsulation and increased vulnerability to climate change has been reported (Evangelou, 1984; Galvin et al., 2004, 2008; Homewood et al., 2009). However, it is not everywhere that pastoralists have lost land. Though rare, pastoralism has expanded in regions where pastoralists control the state. Jànszky and Jungstand (2013) document a violent expansion of the pastoralist Zaghawa into Tama farming territory in Chad fueled by the politics of state patronage. Similarly, pastoralist militia territorial gain in Darfur occurred under state protection (De Waal, 1989). In both examples, pastoralists took advantage of their political intimacy with the state apparatus to forcefully acquire pasture. This expansion lowered their vulnerability to climate change and variability.

Second, pastoral adaptation is viewed as a practice that synthesizes external and local knowledge. This perspective builds on the earlier work of cultural ecologists and intentionally examines pastoral knowledge systems and the manner in which they are mobilized for adapting to climate change (Smucker & Wangui, 2016). Pastoralist knowledge of local ecological processes and environmental change is now recognized. Participatory research with pastoralists demonstrates that their decisions on where to graze at different times of the year are arrived at after careful examination of ecological conditions and an assessment of the needs of their livestock (Cochrane et al., 2005). This relatively new pastoral voice adds to previous studies that challenge the Eurocentric view of pastoralism as being responsible for environmental degradation and further advances the counternarrative of pastoralism as adaptation (e.g., Geshekter, 1985; Markakis, 1998; Homewood & Rogers, 1987; Oba, 2012). Equally important are investigations into how pastoralists mobilize social memory to understand adaptations (Oba, 2014). For example, the Mande of West Africa, and the Somali, Borana, and Gabra of East Africa all have folklore on past adaptation practices and the sociopolitical contexts within which they were utilized (McIntosh, 2000; Mohamed, 1975; Oba, 2014). This rich body of folklore could potentially inform future adaptation decisions.

Third, a small but growing body of research examines the gender dimensions of adaptation within pastoralist communities (Doria, 2015; Nelson et al., 2002; Omolo, 2010; Wangui, 2014). Gender studies typically examine adaptation at the individual level. These studies show the nature of differential vulnerability to climate change among pastoralists. In particular, wealth status, levels of education, and gender relations influence which particular set of adaptations an individual is able to pursue. Since adaptation requires investments in assets, the less educated, the poor, and especially women have relatively lower adaptive capacities (Wangui & Smucker, 2017). So even as communities adapt, there are those among them who remain vulnerable to climate change and variability.

Fourth, pastoralist adaptations reveal a complex process when considered over the long term. Although such studies are rare, they show that pastoral adaptation strategies undergo cycles as the pastoralists respond to multiple opportunities and constraints to their livelihoods. Bollig and Österle’s (2013) study of the pastoral Pokot of northern Kenya spanned two centuries. They demonstrate how severe dessication between 1760 and 1840 coincided with the emergence of specialized pastoralism among the Pokot from more diversified livelihoods. The pastoral economy was well developed by the time the drought came to an end, and the economy thrived during the following wetter decades. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the Pokot came under severe stress as a result of drought and livestock and human disease epidemics. The massively reduced herd forced the pastoralists to diversify their livelihood to include foraging and farming. They went back to specialized herding when conditions improved. Colonial policies of pastoral encapsulation, conflict with neighboring communities in the 1960s, and the major droughts in the 1980s led Pokot pastoralists to once again diversify from a specialized and cattle-centered approach. Today the pastoral Pokot focus on camels and small stock and integrate farming and livestock trade into their livelihood. This recent phase of diversification reflects the interaction of changing climatic conditions and reduced control of pastures that was accelerated by the colonial process. Similarly, Bollig (2013) demonstrates how, in the last 100 years, the Himba pastoralists of Namibia went from practicing a diverse livelihood that included foraging, trade, and farming to one specialized on herding. This change was a result of livelihood encapsulation and policies that discouraged trade and foraging in the 1920s and 1930s. Starting in the 1950s, a long state-sponsored campaign was initiated to modernize livestock husbandry through sinking boreholes and providing veterinary services. Bollig examines the risks associated with the borehole project and the consequent increase in livestock numbers and concludes that the interventions made pastoralists more vulnerable to the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. New land tenure and mobility patterns that were put in place were in response not just to changing climatic conditions, but also to decades of policies that had led to the demise of indigenous forms of grazing control. Oba (2014) provides additional examples from the Gabra and Borana communities of East Africa. These long-term examples reveal that adaptations among pastoralists are an ongoing process that does not always follow a linear trend (e.g., from specialization to diversification). Therefore, today’s adaptive practices can be expected to be transformed once the conditions within which they were developed change. The bulk of the literature on pastoralism and adaptation focuses on the last two to three decades, and it is this literature that will now be discussed.

Pastoralists’ Adaptive Practices

Changing Mobility Patterns

Mobility is a basic characteristic of pastoralism in Africa, which, according to archaeological evidence, can be traced back to prehistoric herders (Jesse et al., 2013). Mobility facilitates risk avoidance over space as herds can be moved between dry- and wet-season pastures during the year (Fratkin, 1997; Nassef et al., 2009; López-i-Gelats, 2016). Such use of land requires that a pastoralist group have access to vast and varied ecological areas. This is no longer an option for increasingly spatially constrained pastoral livelihoods. In places where pastoralists contend with climate change and variability and a loss of part of their pasture, they have developed new ways of accessing pasture and water (Goldman & Riosmena, 2013).

BurnSilver (2009) and Wangui (2008) have documented how some Maasai pastoralists in Kenya maintain access to different ecological zones along the Mount Kilimanjaro ecological gradient by owning a boma1 in a highland wet zone and a second one in the lowland dry zone. Herds are moved to the dry zone during the wet season when pastures are easily available even in the dry zone. This protects the pastures in the highland zone for use during the dry season when the dry zone pastures are gone. In addition to such practices that involve individual pastoralists, there are other strategies that require the cooperation of the entire community. For example, after the 1984 regional drought, the Ilkisongo Maasai of southern Kenya instituted a land-use management plan involving four group ranches (Wangui, 2014). The goal of the management plan was to conserve a part of their shared rangeland for grazing only during the dry season. The plan relied on new initiatives by local group ranch officials and the existence of a traditional framework of rules and regulations that govern grazing.

Pastoralists also facilitate existing adaptation practices through the use of technology and infrastructure that have become more widely available in the last two decades. Most notable is the reliance on cell phone communication in the search for pasture during extended dry spells. In northern Tanzania, the moran age group that is responsible for the search of pasture increasingly travel by bus and communicate with their families back home using cell phones. Cell phone communication has also made it easier for pastoralists in Kenya to graze inside national parks where grazing is typically restricted (Asaka & Smucker, 2016; Butt, 2015; Maingi, 2011). The reliance on cell phones and buses expands the geographic area that can be covered within a particular time frame. It is most effective where herders also have a way to move their livestock quickly over great distances. Herders in Kenya and Tanzania are trucking parts of their herds to these distant pastures. Access to water is also a concern for herders during drought years. In southern Kenya, Maasai herders have begun to use parts of the range they had previously avoided due to a lack of water. They move the herds to the Chyulu Hills where there is an absence of surface water, and they truck water to the hills on a weekly basis. As can be expected, trucking herds and water is costly; hence, it is only available to relatively wealthy herders who can afford to rent or own the trucks.

Herd and Livelihood Diversification

Diversification reduces risk through investment in a variety of assets. In the context of pastoralism and climate change, diversification can occur through investment in nonherding-related assets or through a change in the type of herds kept. One of the most widely practiced forms of diversification incorporates crop farming into the pastoral livelihood. In much of East Africa, pastoralists have taken up farming on a more permanent basis in the last three decades (Campbell, 1999; De Haan et al., 1990; Goldman & Riosmena, 2013; Homewood et al., 2009). Initially, pastoralists started to farm as a temporary measure after the regional drought of 1984. While taking up farming following extended droughts was not a new practice for pastoralists, the development emphasis on crop farming by national governments after independence had created an infrastructure that facilitated the transition from herding to farming following the 1984 regional drought. Pastoralists continued to farm with the hope that they would give it up once they had rebuilt their herds. Over time, crop farming became an integral part of their livelihood, and many feel that current pastoralism cannot survive without farming (Bishop, 2007; Wangui, 2014).

Across Africa, pastoralists continue to change the types of livestock they keep and the specific breeds, in response to their changing climatic and economic contexts. Meerpohl (2013) has outlined this shift among Zaghawa pastoralists of northeastern Chad. Before the regional droughts of 1968, 1972/1973, and 1984/1985, the Zaghawa kept mostly cattle, sheep, and goats. Cattle and sheep were especially vulnerable to the droughts, and some pastoralists lost all their herds during one of these droughts. They restocked with camel and goats, which are less vulnerable to drought. Camels can go one month without being watered, and they are able to live on sparse vegetation. Goats are browsers, and they can survive on a wide variety of bushes and trees.

Herders diversify their economic assets by incorporating income-earning opportunities outside of herding. In the rural economy, this can be in the form of temporary employment (Wangui & Smucker, 2017) or through migration out of the rural areas to seek off-farm income in urban areas (Rufino et al., 2013). The primary goal of this form of diversification is to support pastoralism. Meerpohl’s research among the Zaghawa examines how they have migrated to urban areas in search of employment, but still practice pastoralism back home with the help of family members or hired hands (Meerpohl, 2013). Herders also plan for longer-term generational migration out of pastoralism as an adaptation strategy. Increasingly, herders send their offspring to school with the hope that their children will pursue wage employment once they complete their education (Oba, 2014; Wangui & Smucker, 2017). Sending children to school also allows herders to pursue other adaptations more effectively because of the added advantage of increased literacy.

Market Exchange

The diminishing role of the state related to the 1980s neoliberal policies across Africa opened up new opportunities for market exchange. Maasai pastoralists of East Africa identify livestock trade as one of the most significant adaptations to climate change (Wangui & Smucker, 2017). Trading in livestock was widely practiced in the past, as demonstrated by Lovejoy and Baier’s (1975) discussion of the Tuareg trade network of western and northern Africa. In other parts of Africa, herders used live animals to pay for goods and services received from other communities (e.g., Bollig, 1987) or exchanged livestock in order to diversify their herds or for breeding purposes (Kerven, 1992; Sobania, 1991). The well-documented historical long-distance trans-Saharan trade included sales of camels in Egypt that were used in the caravans since they were not needed on the return trip (Walz, 1986). These trade routes were abandoned during the colonial period as the colonial powers transformed space and controlled movement. In the last two decades, cross-border livestock trade has increased in some parts of the continent, stimulated by various forces, including drought (Meerpohl, 2013). Little (2003, 2013) provides a detailed account of trade in the borderlands of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia and demonstrates the role that trade plays in enhancing local incomes, food security, and general welfare. Narratives from Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania reveal how this in turn translates into a higher adaptive capacity, as livestock traders are better equipped to face the challenges of a variable climate. Through trade, they are able to diversity their income and obtain a wider variety of breeding stock to improve their herds (Wangui & Smucker, 2017). Meerpohl (2013) describes how political and environmental pressures led to the resurrection of historic trans-Saharan trade routes between Chad, Libya, and Sudan beginning in 1990. Once resurrected, the previously seminomadic Zaghawa and Goran pastoralists have been able to sustain their livelihoods through participation in this trade. Initial participation in the trade came after migration stimulated by several droughts. The trade is primarily driven by a demand for camel meat in Libya and industrial goods in Chad. The seminomadic livelihood of the Zaghawa and Goran gave them intricate knowledge of Chad’s northern territories, which together with their social and political connections facilitated their dominance in the international camel trade today. Trade facilitates livelihood diversification, which in turn improves pastoralists’ adaptive capacities.

Market liberalization policies that were adopted across Africa in the 1980s increased the choices that pastoralists had to treat livestock diseases. Previously, pastoralists had widely available herbal options that they had developed and used for generations. Before market liberalization, livestock drug options from the pharmaceutical companies had less penetration beyond the large cities. Market liberation increased the inflow and penetration of these drugs and hence the potential for their adoption and use. Actual adoption and use are limited to wealthier pastoralists who can afford the higher cost of these drugs. Currently, relatively wealthier pastoralists rely more on the newly available drugs to treat livestock diseases. Another opportunity connected to trade is access to livestock feed during the dry season (Goldman & Riosmena, 2013). Pastoralists who can afford it rely on buying livestock feed and sometimes transporting it by trucks to the herds (Schilling et al., 2014). Maasai pastoralists report this as an effective adaptation practice (Wangui & Smucker, 2017).

Climate Change and Conflict

Researchers in environmental security have grappled with the role that climate change plays in conflict in African pastoralist contexts (e.g., Bob & Bronkhorst, 2014). There are documented examples of pastoralists gaining pasture through the use of force, and consequently reducing their vulnerability to climate change (e.g., Jànszky & Jungstand, 2013; Meerpohl, 2013). As explained earlier, this happens where pastoral groups have influential connections with institutions of government, gaining an advantage as they pass through territories controlled by other communities. Direct causality between climate change and conflict has been more difficult to find. Some (e.g., Omolo, 2010) have linked conflict in the horn of Africa to climate change, while others (Buhaug, 2010; McCabe, 2004; Sunga, 2011; Turner, 2010) see it as rooted in political, ethnic, and economic conditions. Examples from West Africa reveal similar weak links between climate change and conflict. For example, Benjaminsen et al. (2012) investigated the importance of climate variability on land-use conflict in the Mopti region of Mali and concluded that political and economic contexts, rather than climate variability, have shaped land-use conflict in the region.

Schilling et al. (2014) illustrate the complexity of the link between climate change and conflict with a study of the Turkana of northwestern Kenya. In an examination of Turkana raiding practices, they found that conflict is high during both years of sufficient rains and years of low rainfall. However, the motivation for raiding varies by season. In good years, raiding is motivated by restocking priorities, as the animals are well enough to walk longer distances. In dry years, raiding is carried out in order to access pasture. Studies that find a link between climate change and conflict among pastoral communities are for the most part informed by environmental scarcity models (e.g., Obioha, 2008; Schilling et al., 2014). As Oba (2014) has convincingly argued, such explanations fail to capture the full spectrum of relations between the communities involved by deemphasizing strong historical relations and ongoing complementarities between the communities. They also tend to simplify complex political roots of conflicts that may play a larger role than a changing climate (Davidheiser & Luna, 2008; Nordås & Gleditsh, 2007; Buhaung & Theisen, 2012; Benjaminsen & Ba, 2009; Mkutu, 2008; Leroy, 2009). Despite these critiques, these studies are important as they explore the possibilities of conflict-sensitive adaptation. They also examine how ongoing adaptation projects may invariably increase tensions between communities. Perhaps their main contribution is that they emphasize the need to include development, environment, and peace-building efforts within climate change adaptation in conflict-prone areas.

Challenges to Future Adaptations

Planning for future adaptations would be most efficient if there was a clear understanding of what pastoralists are adapting to. However, there is a universal challenge facing adaptation that comes from the uncertainties of what the future climate will look like and how variability will continue to change (Barnett, 2001). Some climate scientists have suggested that wetter areas will become wetter and drier areas will become drier (Dore, 2005). The IPCC concludes that mean annual temperatures in Africa are projected to rise faster than the global mean increase in the next century (Niang et al., 2014). Where reliable data are present, mean annual precipitation amounts are projected to decrease over most of Africa except the eastern and central parts of the continent. Downscaled models focusing on Africa suggest that parts of eastern Africa will become wetter, creating droughts in some parts and floods in others (Collier et al., 2008; Hession & Moore, 2011). Norrington-Davies and Thornton (2011) remind us that there is a large disparity in the amplitude of future El Niño events in model projections. Since El Niño events influence droughts in the region, the disparity compounds the uncertainties surrounding future climate.

Further, there are uncertainties about the positive and negative feedbacks associated with climate change. For example, it remains unclear how global warming will impact the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pressure systems that in turn influence climate on the African continent (Dore, 2005; Oba et al., 2001). Further, the fertilization effect of increased carbon dioxide may benefit pastoralism in the Sahel and possibly shift pastoralism further north into the Sahara Desert (Brooks et al., 2009). These uncertainties make it difficult for pastoralists to have a good grasp of what future climate will look like. This issue is compounded by the fact that there is uncertainty of what the future social, economic and political structures will be.

Questions also arise with regard to the spatial scale of adaptation. Climate projections are based on broad scales, while pastoral adaptation decisions happened at finer scales. For this reason, it is difficult to plan future adaptations based on future scenarios produced by climate scientists. Additionally, pastoralists’ adaptation practices are followed based on an analysis of the individual, household, or community’s specific opportunities and constraints. Yet the phenomenon they are adapting to is global in scale, and hence it impacts others outside their immediate surroundings. One individual’s household’s or one community’s adaptation can increase vulnerability for others. This is especially true in pastoral communities where irrigated agriculture is sometimes practiced on dry-season grazing areas, increasing the potential for conflicts between and within communities (Campbell et al., 2000). It can also happen where adjacent communities follow land uses that are in conflict with each other. This is best illustrated in South Kajiado in Kenya where two different Maasai communities chose to use one wetland in two different ways.2 On one side the wetland was conserved for ecotourism, while on the other it was farmed. The absence of a fence separating the two land uses increased human–wildlife conflicts in the area. Changing mobility patterns that have been observed in West Africa from the northern Sahel to the south may trigger farmer–herder conflicts over resources due to prevailing social and political factors (Bénié et al., 2005; De Bruijn & Van Dijk, 2003). So even as pastoralists and their neighbors adapt, interdependence between pastoralists and agricultural communities will remain important.

Attempts to generate discussions about long-term adaptation plans at the community level is challenging. Many pastoralists are unable to comprehend what a future that is 20, 30, or more years away would look like, based on the unprecedented changes they have seen in the past. This is especially so when discussing an uncertain future climate and sociopolitical context. Most discussions of future climate scenarios are based on annual average conditions of temperature and precipitation. Yet, most pastoralists adjust their livelihoods in response to both long-term trends and climate variability, which produces extreme events.

Finally, pastoralists in general lack political power in many African countries (López-i-Gelats et al., 2016). They remain marginalized and for the most part without a voice when national adaptation policies are discussed. A look at Tanzania’s and Uganda’s National Adaptation Programme of Action illustrates this pattern of prioritizing farming livelihoods over pastoralist livelihoods at the national level (Nassef et al., 2009). As Smucker et al. (2015) demonstrate, such top-down planned adaptations can be in conflict with autonomous adaptations that are already in progress within pastoralist communities. National policies can also undermine customary forms of authority responsible for resource use and conflict management, as has been demonstrated in the South Kordofan region of Sudan (Bronkhorst, 2014). Tensions between national policies and local priorities are connected to the different and sometimes competing ways of knowing climate and climate change processes. Many scholars have worked to draw attention to the value of integrating different forms of knowledge in climate change adaptation in the Sahel and North Africa (Davis, 2005b; Nyong et al., 2007). But as Goldman et al. (2016) demonstrate, such conflicts over knowledge are tied to ontological differences and are inherently political. Reconciling competing multiple ontologies for planning purposes remains challenging. Recent patterns of international land acquisitions create new challenges for pastoralism where national governments do not move to safeguard access to pasture (Cotula et al., 2009). A challenge to future adaptations that remains is that of fostering the political will to implement the synergies already identified between community-based autonomous adaptations and national planned adaptations. Related to this challenge is a need for additional research on long-term adaptive strategies that have worked, with a view to supporting institutions that facilitate such adaptations.


Pastoralism has not always been viewed as a livelihood capable of adapting to a changing climate. A Eurocentric approach overlooked pastoral adaptive capacity and set out to modernize livelihood to better fit Western notions of African wildness and models of livestock production. Together with other policies of pasture fragmentation and alienation, this approach had the effect of increasing pastoral vulnerability to climate change and variability. Contrary to the Eurocentric approach, research from ecologists and social scientists, especially after the 1960s, provided evidence of pastoralism as a livelihood that was well adapted to variability. With this came a recognition of the value of pastoral knowledge systems to adaptation. More recent research has documented multiple ways that pastoralists can adapt to a combination of a changing and variable climate and myriad evolving political, social, and economic conditions. However, future adaptations face several challenges, including the persistent marginalization of the livelihood by central governments, many of which prioritize farming communities.

Given existing challenges to adaptation, it is not surprising that some researchers are pessimistic about the future of pastoralism. However, when longer-term processes such as those described by Oba (2014), Bollig and Österle (2013), and Bollig (2013) are taken into consideration, the future is found to be more hopeful. Pastoralism in Africa evolved as an adaptation to a climate already characterized by uncertainty and variability. While the sociopolitical context within which the pastoral livelihood is produced has changed, the livelihood is inherently resilient. Oba (2014) provides four explanations for this resilience:

  1. 1. The degree to which it combines livestock grazing decisions with livestock species adaptations to deal with environmental variability;

  2. 2. The degree to which it relies on a variety of resources during periods of stress;

  3. 3. the flexibility that evolved in modifying adaptive strategies to incorporate non-pastoral strategies wherever possible; and

  4. 4. the degree to which new adaptive strategies were adopted to respond to variability under new political and environmental circumstances (p. 224).

With Africa’s history of resilience, pastoralism is expected to continue to evolve and adapt to new climatic and nonclimatic stressors in the future.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (1.) Boma is a Maasai homestead inhabited by an extended family unit and their livestock.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (2.) This example is based on field notes from the author’s dissertation fieldwork conducted in Kajiado in 2001.