Too many people, too few livestock

Below is an unpublished extract written by Stephen Sandford from the book Development at the Margins: Pathways of Change in the Horn of Africa, ed. Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind and Ian Scoones (2012), Earthscan. It was written in November 2011.

Over the last half-century pastoralists’ wealth and welfare have been in sharp decline in the Horn of Africa and it is becoming increasingly urgent to find other livelihoods for many of them. This chapter is a plea for a rethink about the potential of irrigated agriculture to be a valuable alternative or additional livelihood to pastoralism. The Horn of Africa in this paper refers to the five core countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

For many years the average levels (and the equity of inter-household distribution) of wealth and welfare, among pastoralists in the rangelands of the Horn have been getting worse (Waller, 1999; McPeak, 2006, p45; Desta and Coppock, 2002, p445, Devereux, 2006, pp88-90); and they will continue to worsen. This is a consequence of a growing imbalance between the extent, productivity and sustainability of the rangelands, the number of humans dependent on them for their livelihood, and the number of livestock needed to support these humans. That number is, in turn, determined by the productivity of the land and animals, the proportion of different types of output which are bought and sold, and their relative prices (Dietz et al, 2001; Sandford, 2006; ODI, 2010). Although there has been some switch from natural vegetation to feed based on cropping, livestock herded by pastoralists in the Horn of Africa still depend on the rangelands for most of their diet, typically 70-80 per cent in individual countries (LOG Associates, 2010, pxix). But the extent of the rangelands accessible by pastoralists is declining (Homewood, 2008, p251) and, in spite of the unreliability of demographic data (ODI, 2010), the human population is increasing (Randall, 2008), although becoming less nomadic.

The livestock population, which is already too large for the natural environment to support sustainably (ODI, 2010) is at the same time too small to provide an adequate living for the human population if that remains largely dependent on pastoralism. The burden of the resulting gap between the requirements for livestock (and their products) and their supply falls principally on the already poor. They have herds that are too small to sustain them. Consequently they have to supplement their income in other ways which leads them to neglect their herds. Their herds therefore shrink yet further (Lybbert et al, 2004). The non-viability of the existing pastoral systems, as highlighted by the acute food crisis of 2011, continues to worsen.

If both the growth of the human population and primary dependence on a pastoral livelihood are to continue, then the net value of total pastoral output (i.e. sales and auto-consumption of animals and their products) needs to increase, but without putting further grazing pressure on the rangelands by increasing animal numbers. The best available forecasts (OECD/FAO, 2011) of real world prices (adjusted for inflation) over the next decade do not suggest that this increase in net value will come about by rises in the prices of the animal products produced by pastoralists. Any increase in net value of pastoral output will have to come through changes in quantity.

Although there is some scope for improving secondary productivity (yield of animal products per unit of feed consumed by the herd), for example through improved animal health, this will have little real effect unless the total quantity of feed consumed is also increased (Otchere, 1986). Such an increase in feed consumed will either require the extra feed to be imported from non-pastoral areas or the primary productivity of the rangelands (feed per hectare) to be increased. Although high protein feed supplements can be economically imported and fed, the feed conversion ratios of cattle and small ruminants are such that, as simple back-of-the-envelope modelling of transport costs show, it is normally much more economic to export the pastoral livestock to where the bulky energy-providing feed is grown in the non-pastoral areas rather than the other way round. But in such systems, the value added then accrues to the non-pastoralist feed-growers.

While a modest increase in the quantity of pastoral output might be achieved by an increase in the efficiency with which existing ‘traditional’ technology is used the scope for this is limited. In spite of some claims to the contrary (Breman 1995; Toutain et al, 2009, p186), the ‘improved’ research-based technology available does not seem able substantially to increase the primary productivity of rainfed rangelands.

One issue is that most research focused on rangelands is not intended to maximise income but focuses on sustainability. That emphasis may be appropriate but the focus of this paper is income and how to stop the increasing impoverishment of pastoralists and to strengthen their ability to survive. A proper scientific approach to testing the hypothesis that research-based technology is no better than what pastoralists already do would require statistical testing of considerable sophistication. The data for this does not exist and will not for decades, if ever. In the meantime, one has to rely on unsophisticated comparisons and indirect approaches.

Four such approaches are:

  1. The crude quantitative comparisons that are available show that commercial ranches, which normally claim that their range management techniques are derived from research, have lower values of output per ha than traditional pastoralists in comparable circumstances (Hesse, 2009).
  2. Appropriate range-management techniques and strategies are very ‘site- specific’, depending on local ecological, social and economic factors (Perrier, 1990; Briske et al, 2008). Africa is very heterogeneous and the quantity of research carried out (other than in South Africa) is too small to have produced reliable results even for a few sites.
  3. Although extension services have been advising African pastoralists for the last sixty years to adopt ‘improved range management’ in practice take-up of these recommendations has been minimal (Ndlovu and Mugabe, 2002, p259). This suggests that pastoralists do not find that the recommendations are profitable.
  4. Although range scientists 40-50 years ago were very confident in the power of improved range management, claiming that it could double yields (Sandford, 1980), their recent claims have been much more modest. For example, a senior range scientist in South Africa, where there has been considerable range research done, says ‘In the field of rangeland science we can offer to marginally increase production by improving the use of rangeland’ (Palmer 1999)  [emphasis added]

The need to diversify and its scale

The evidence presented here on the improbability of net pastoral output increasing as a result of either higher prices or of the adoption of new technology indicates that the recent and continuing decline in the welfare of pastoralists will not be halted or reversed by focusing only, or even principally, on livestock-based livelihoods. Diversification of livelihoods is essential.

Successful and sustainable land use in dry areas of the Horn requires a mobile system of land use and often household herds of mixed species, able to exploit different types of vegetation in widely separated locations at different seasons. An efficient mobile land-use system requires an adequate labour force for herding and one able to respond to rainfall and other events rapidly. Households with too small a herd get a living from and who consequently have to divide their attention across several different livelihoods, or with too small a labour force who are unable to devote sufficient attention to the needs of different categories and species of stock, are not economically viable as pastoralists (Barrett and McPeak 2006) and are unable to operate a mobile system of land use. At the same time their herds compete for scarce livestock feed with the herds of those who are potentially viable, and their immobile system of land use puts greater pressure on the environment.

Diversification of livelihoods by the pastoral population as a whole but specialisation by individual households is the key to successful and sustainable land use. The aim should be to reduce the number of people dependent on pastoralism by facilitating the emigration out of a pastoral livelihood of those households who have to diversify if they are to survive at all.

The scale of the effort needed to achieve a satisfactory rate of emigration depends on the present degree of overpopulation, as reflected in various indicators of stress, and in the future rate of growth of the population significantly dependent on pastoralism. Obviously these will differ quite widely between different locations. But we can take as an example the pastoral areas of north Kenya and southern Ethiopia. Two indicators of stress are:

  • In the pastoral areas of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, 49 per cent of households wholly or partially dependent on pastoralism were, for four consecutive dry seasons of study (McPeak, 2004), below an income poverty line which was set at a value equivalent to half the level of the UN’s extreme poverty line (US$1 of 1993 purchasing power parity) per person per day.
  • About 80 per cent of family herds in these pastoral areas are now less than the threshold size (about 10-12 head of cattle per household or their equivalent in terms of other categories of livestock) above which household herds are, after a ‘shock’ such as extreme drought, probably able to recover their pre-shock size but below which they gradually dwindle in numbers and are no longer viable pastoralists (Lybbert et al, 2004).

These two indicators show that the proportion of the pastoral population already in acute poverty, no longer able to practise viable pastoralism, and urgently needing an alternative livelihood is large. For this reason I have advocated elsewhere the need to reconsider the option of irrigation-based livelihoods (Sandford 2011).

Stephen Sandford
November 2011


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