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Pastoralism: An African way of life on the brink of extinction, warns report

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Pastoralism, a distinct African culture, form of livestock production and nomadic way of life, may vanish forever in its traditional form without urgent action to address the needs of pastoralist peoples in eastern Africa and the Horn. As pastoralists gather this weekend for Kenyan Pastoralist Week, this is the stark message of a new Minority Rights Group International (MRG) report, ‘Pastoralism on the Margin’, which warns that the essential foundations of this unique and ancient way of life have been all but eroded in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The demise of such a culture, largely due to competing interests over land and failure to acknowledge and protect pastoralist rights, would be ‘a human rights tragedy and a major loss to Africa’s and humanity’s cultural heritage’, stated MRG.

The dispossession of land and promotion of agriculture – a process that began under colonization – has been continued and accelerated by independent African States in the region. The freedom of movement over large tracts of land and access to water, essential to pastoralism, has been curtailed by the development of large-scale cultivation and irrigation, the imposition of national boundaries, tourism development and the establishment of nature reserves and game parks. The situation is exacerbated by climatic change, conflict, disease, drought and famine, which have particularly affected vulnerable pastoralist communities. An upsurge in development interest in pastoralism in recent years has done little to slow the decline, which MRG’s report suggests has reached a phase which ‘may well prove terminal’.

‘Pastoralism is a living culture and way of life for millions of people in eastern Africa today, with a rich, diverse and ancient history, yet it is being squeezed and marginalized out of existence ‘, stated MRG spokesperson, Graham Fox. ‘The cultural survival of pastoralist communities, not as tourist attractions, but as thriving, functioning elements of the cultural mosaic of modern Africa, is now in doubt’.

Ethiopia has the largest pastoralist population in the region amounting to some 10-12 per cent of its total population, or 7-8 million people, representing at least 20 ethnic groups. Kenya’s pastoralist population is estimated at some 6 million people. Many pastoralists have resisted pressure to adopt a settled way of life and cultivation, which erodes deep-rooted traditional cultural practices, relationships with the land and livestock, and nomadic lifestyles. According to MRG, revised strategies are urgently required by states, development agencies and donors, that acknowledge and incorporate the needs and priorities of pastoralists themselves in order for viable and sustainable solutions to be found. MRG points out that such solutions will play a vital role in promoting stability and preventing conflict in the region.

MRG’s report concludes with recommendations aimed at finding a long-overdue solution, which may yet preserve the pastoralist way of life. Key amongst these recommendations to states are the fulfilment of obligations under international human rights treaties, and in particular the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which guarantee the right of everyone to freedom of movement (Article 12) and to freely take part in the cultural life of their community (Article 17). States should furthermore ensure that their recognized system of land tenure includes protection of the use of land by pastoralists, and that past, unfair seizure of land and prevention of its use, is effectively adjudicated on and adequately compensated.

Pastoralism is an ancient mode of mobile livestock production that makes extensive use of grazing lands in the low lands of the Great Rift in eastern Africa and the Horn. Pastoralists in this region inhabit an arid dryland terrain that does not support continuous crop cultivation and cannot sustain large population numbers.

In early December, MRG is representing the Endorois, a pastoralist community of Kenya, at an admissibility hearing to the African Commission in Dakar. The Endorois lived for centuries around the Lake Bogoria region and were forced from their traditional lands in the 1970s to create a game reserve. They now live in a number of locations on the periphery of the reserve and have been forced from fertile lands to semi-arid areas.

Notes for editors

For further information or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on press@minorityrights.org.

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