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date: 01 February 2023

Pastoralist Ecologieslocked

Pastoralist Ecologieslocked

  • J. Terrence McCabeJ. Terrence McCabeUniversity of Colorado, Boulder


Rangelands cover more of the earth’s surface (25–45 percent) than any other type of land. The primary livelihood strategy for people living in these lands is the raising of livestock, with an estimated thirty million people in Africa alone depending on livestock for their basic subsistence. Pastoral people are found all over the world, and regardless of what continent on which they are found, the environments in which they live are characterized as marginal, being too dry or cold for cultivation. These ecosystems are also subject to unpredictable extreme events, most commonly droughts. The impact of the environment on pastoral people’s decision-making and livelihoods and the impact of livestock on the environment have been the subject of anthropological inquiry since the 1940s. Beginning with E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s work in the Sudan and Owen Lattimore’s work in China, many aspects of the literature on pastoralism have developed in concert with the larger literature on ecological and environmental anthropology. How to define pastoralism has also been the subject of anthropological debate, and how to define a livelihood as “pastoral” has been complicated by more recent research revealing that people have moved in and out of livestock keeping for millennia. However, the degree to which people depend on livestock, both in terms of subsistence and identity, lies at the core of any definition of pastoralism. In many respects, the anthropological and ecological study of pastoralism has led the way in the theoretical development of the study of human/environment relationships. Theoretical advances have also had important policy implications. The idea that pastoralism will inevitably lead to environmental degradation (the tragedy of the commons argument) has influenced governments and development agencies to advocate for reduced mobility and reduction of the number of livestock kept by pastoral households. This understanding has been challenged by an examination of rangelands as nonequilibrium systems, which would require a rethinking of pastoral development policies and programs. Now ecological anthropologists and other social scientists are examining the resilience of these coupled social and ecological systems as rangeland ecosystems are increasingly fragmented and subject to climate change.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology

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