Pastoralism - Classic issues


Students will establish a baseline of historical knowledge of the classic issues that shaped the pastoralist experience in the 19th and 20th centuries. This baseline will provide the context needed to examine contemporary experience and gain insights into the dynamics of change and continuity for pastoralists in the Horn of Africa.


The “Classic” issues that confronted pastoralists and pastoralism in the Horn of Africa in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century are introduced and described in the following readings written by J. Michael Halderman. Read them in the following order:

  1. “East African Pastoralists.” In Cultural Survival Quarterly, volume 8, number 1 (Spring 1984: Special issue on pastoral societies in a changing world) pp. 39-45.
  1. “Problems of Pastoral Development in Eastern Africa.” In Agricultural Administration, volume 18, number 4 (1985) pp. 199-216.
  1. “Which Route to Follow?” In Development and Famine Risk in Kenya Maasai Land. Doctoral dissertation, department of political science, University of California, Berkeley (1987) pp. 39-59. (This chapter is a short story based on real events that is intended to provide the reader with a deeper and closer sense of the people and issues involved.)
  1. “The Future of Pastoralism in Turkana District, Kenya.” Response to a request for information from students at Wageningen University in the Netherlands (June 2005) pp. 1-2.

Key Points Covered:

Pastoralism is widely practiced in most of the vast semi-arid and arid areas found in the Horn of Africa (see the section below regarding which maps in this HOA web portal are relevant). In Somalia, pastoralists make up nearly three-quarters of the population. Although the total number of pastoralists in Kenya and Ethiopia is similar to that in Somalia, pastoralists make up much smaller percentages of those countries’ much larger total populations. Pastoralists comprise a large proportion of the very small total population of Djibouti, and a small proportion of the population of Eritrea.

Major environmental constraints are found in the areas where pastoralists live. These areas are primarily semi-arid and arid where cropping is risky or impossible and there are few reliable sources of water. Pastoralists, however, long ago developed effective systems of using these resources.

As a result of European colonization of the Horn, large areas of land and sources of water were alienated from pastoralists for other uses. In many cases, the lost land was very important to pastoralists as it was essential dry season (and/or reserve) grazing areas with access to key water points (rivers, wells). Kenya is a key example as the land that became the “White Highlands,” where European settlers farmed and ranched, was taken by the British government primarily from the Maasai. (See the short story, Which Route to Follow?, listed above.)

Wildlife conservation has also played a major role in reducing pastoralists’ access to land and water. Most of the land in the Horn that became national parks, game parks or game reserves had been long used by pastoralists. The issue remains very sensitive, particularly in some areas, as the land and water sources are considered highly valuable by pastoralists, governments, and wildlife conservation authorities and proponents.

A critical consequence of this loss of land and water was that it imposed major restrictions on the capacity of pastoralists to cope with irregular rainfall and drought, thereby increasing the frequency and severity of food shortage and famine. These factors led to conflict with other groups, both pastoralist and non-pastoralist.

Mobility of people and their livestock is essential to pastoralism, and the restrictions on such movement imposed by colonial and then independent governments became a major problem for pastoralists.

The readings discuss the potential role of development and the obstacles to achieving effective “pastoral development.”

It is important to recognize that “pastoral development” has no sense, or validity to pastoralists, if it does not benefit the pastoralists themselves. It is equally important to understand that pastoralist economic strategy is rational and that the widely used phrase “cattle complex” is inappropriate.

However, most non-pastoralists living in the Horn of Africa (as well as most non-Africans working for international organizations, embassies and companies in the Horn) do not understand the issues presented above. Nor do they understand that there is:
•    potential conflict between pastoralism and commercial beef production
•    a real dilemma between the individual and common interests of pastoralists.

The problems confronting pastoralism noted above began with European colonization in the Horn of Africa, but they have also been a major issue in Ethiopia which was never colonized by Europeans. The authorities of imperial Abyssinia had a very negative view of pastoralists when they greatly enlarged its territory, during the same period that the Horn and other parts of Africa were divided in the scramble for empire near the end of the nineteenth century. During their process of expansion, the Ethiopian authorities claimed enormous areas pastoralists had long inhabited that had never previously been part of Ethiopia. Both the imperial and subsequent Ethiopian governments have been very strongly anti-pastoralist.

During the colonial and independent periods in the Horn of Africa, only a very small percentage of pastoralists received modern education. Even today most pastoralists are illiterate, and this greatly reduces their capacity and opportunities to take part in the government and other aspects of the modern sector.

In many countries of the world, issues related to what Garrett Hardin described in the “Tragedy of the Commons” (see the section on Key References below) are widely found and recognized. In his well-known and frequently quoted 1968 article in Science, Hardin contended that common property resources, such as land shared communally by pastoralists, at some point would become overused and therefore ruined. Such use of land by pastoralists was therefore unstable and would degrade the environment. In the Horn and elsewhere, even those who have never read Hardin believe that African pastoralism is a key example of this “tragedy.”

Authored by


Source Name

Michael Halderman