Having spent a fruitless day in search of pasture in the searing heat, about 20 worried and exhausted Fulani pastoralists from Niger near the southeastern edge of the Sahara lie under the stars and mull their future. The next rains and green pastures are still another four months away - or maybe not, mused one of them - “only Allah knows”.
“Do you remember any time it was harder than this?” asked Yousufa Bukar, directing his question to the two elders in the camp. “I managed to find temporary work to feed my family last year but I don’t know how long my savings are going to last.” He is down to a few chickens, a goat and a horse, assets that cannot keep his family of five fed until the next rains.
Not all the usual coping mechanisms seem to be working this time: “I have to leave to find work in town, but I hear there is not much work there. We could have gone across the border to Nigeria but it is difficult now with this Boko Haram threat,” said a young man, adding that it was still relatively easy to walk across, but you could get arrested on the Nigerian side. “They are catching newcomers suspecting them of being Boko Haram sympathizers.”
Salle Galgno, 60, was unequivocal: “We had difficult years before. Life has become harder now. But we have to keep our way of life by all means. We cannot be anything else. We will remain pastoralists till we die.”
But had Galgno travelled 30km south to Medelaram village to ask its chief, Malammamane Nur, how they were managing, he would have been told the solution was to “diversify”.
Nur, who leads a semi-settled pastoralist Toubou community (traditionally nomadic camel-herders), said he decided in about 1970 to allow some villagers to farm and others to trade to sustain their pastoralist way of life.
That time coincided with the beginning of the longest drought in West Africa, which lasted until the 1990s, according to several studies.
Diversifying their sources of income helped them survive some of the toughest years. “Some of us grow millet and we have our own grain and forage reserves.”
But even Nur is stumped this time round because of the border closure. “Our younger men would have taken our animals across to Nigeria. But they haven’t been able to and I am worried about our animals.”
Keeping animals mobile and healthy is key to survival in a drought. The Diffa Arabs, a nomadic community also known as Mahamid Arabs, realized that a long time ago. They have been largely unaffected by the current drought, except for a shortage of drinking water. “We have money to buy food and water, but it would be better if we had some more wells - the wells in our area are drying up,” said Mustafa Mohammed, leader of a settlement outside Diffa town and 2km from the Nigerian border.
The Mahamid Arabs are a lot more aggressive in maintaining their pastoralist lifestyle compared to other communities in the region. They have also diversified their sources of income, explained Mohammed, “but our younger men left with our herds for Nigeria [following the rains] before the border closed last year.” He said they would remain there until the rains begin again in Diffa in June.
Returning pastoralists will be unaffected by the border closure, say Nigerien officials. Recognizing mobility as a fundamental right of pastoralists, the government enacted changes in 2010 to its pastoral code - guaranteeing the right to travel across borders during the rainy season.
Policies and attitudes towards pastoralists are changing (in Niger and Mali in particular) and helping communities to maintain their cultural integrity and become resilient as rains become more erratic, said Peter Gubbels, who authored the multi-agency 2010 study Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel.
Changes to Niger’s pastoral code ensure animals can drink water from public reserves such as ponds which happen to be located in cropping areas. The code also earmarks certain times of the year when agricultural fields can be accessed by their animals. But some pastoralists said the code is not always adhered to at the local level.
Aid agencies are creating and maintaining water points along corridors used by pastoralists to move their animals. The government and aid agencies are also paying pastoralists to stem the desert with planting schemes, which also help restore the fragile ecosystem.
Experts support diversification. “To some extent, livelihood diversification among pastoralists is not a totally new phenomenon but it can strengthen resilience to shocks like drought,” said Peter Little, a leading expert on pastoralism and the director of Emory University’s (Atlanta, USA) development studies programme.
|Many policymakers mistake diversification among pastoralists as a desire to exit pastoralism|
“Those who are able to keep their animals mobile to adapt to climatic and vegetation variability but also have some family members pursue non-livestock activities are those who tend to be most resilient to drought."
So the communities are not strictly nomadic (where both people and animals are mobile) any more.
That does not mean giving up on a way of life. “Many policymakers mistake diversification among pastoralists as a desire to exit pastoralism, but in reality it actually allows them to remain in pastoralism and to reap benefits both from livestock production and non-livestock activities,” Little said.
Sedentary versus mobile herding
Studies from Niger show that sedentary forms of animal production are 20 percent less productive than mobile herding. "Nomadic herding generates six times more total revenue than agriculture practised in the same zones," noted Gubbels. With droughts becoming more frequent, the already vast expanses of dry land will continue to grow, and pastoralism will be the only sustainable way of life. But it needs support in the form of financial services, improved access to water, education and health care. Urban areas are not able to sustain the many pastoralists who may no longer be able to sustain their lifestyles, he said.
Bappa Dari, leader of a WoDaabe community, a nomadic sub-sect of the Fulanis, was forced to give up a nomadic way of life and take a temporary job as a security guard in Diffa town. Ten years on, he and his community still live in temporary shelters on the outskirts of town. He and the other men earn less than US$50 a month. The women make about a dollar a day braiding hair.
"This is no life - we can be removed from this land anytime," said Dari. "If we manage to make some money, I will buy some livestock and go back to our old way of life. This time I know how to do it properly - only some of us will move with the animals - the rest will stay doing other activities."