The Fight To Preserve Traditional Pastureland

06 Jan 2016 | by
The Fight To Preserve Traditional Pastureland

Climate change and political borders are just two of the challenges facing the world's 200 million to 500 million pastoralists -- women and men practicing animal husbandry, be they nomadic, transhumant or sedentarized.

Herders from five continents recently came together in Shillong, northeastern India, at the second Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) to discuss these issues and their solutions (the first event was held in Sweden in 2011).

A diverse meeting

The ITM session meeting on pastoralists and their challenges regarding pastureland was attended by a colorful mix of people, including yak herders from northeastern India and Mongolia, Bedouin camel herders from Jordan, and sheep farmers from near Siberia and Georgia. The session began with a tribal dance by a Kenyan tribe and ended with one from two Mongolian throat singers.

The Terra Madre network was launched in 2004 when Carlo Petrini, the food activist and founder of Slow Food, invited dozens of food-producing communities from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to meet and share their experiences in a groundbreaking format. Since then, the network has expanded and become a powerful lobbying voice for indigenous people in 158 countries.

Political obstacles

"We keep animals; they're our daily bread," said Amina Duba of the Borana tribe in northernKena, which works primarily with cattle. "We have helped conserve nature for thousands of years, yet we're often told that our lifestyle is backward. We've been socially and politically marginalized too often."

Ol-Johan Sikku, a reindeer herder from the Sami community (formerly also known as Laplanders) that stretches across several Arctic countries, and a member of the Sami parliament, agreed. "We are always surrounded by decisions others have made for us. For example, Russia colonized part of our territory in a move of land-grabbing. They have colonized our lands but also our minds, and we're now realizing to what extent. When you've been colonized like this, you look down on yourself, seeing yourself from the outside. We must give value to our own cultures and ancestral wisdom, and put them first."

Many indigenous pastoralists are faced with the paradoxical situation of finding their traditional pasturelands off-limits because they have been declared national parks or wildlife reserves by their governments. Others are no longer able to steer their animals to winter or summer pastures because of new political borders, main roads or desertification due to global warming.

Losing their land

"The landscape that indigenous people value most is being taken away from them, either through land-grabbing or wildlife conservation," said Hassan Roba of the Christensen Fund, a California-based, nonprofit private foundation that backs the stewards of cultural and biological diversity and supported the ITM event.

"In the past, herders and wildlife co-existed and shared access to water points and grazing resources," Roba said. "The major problem now is that the government policymakers don't understand how this unique balance, this fragile ecosystem, works. They impose their plans for 'development' from the outside, without consulting or taking note of the people who have lived on those lands for centuries, if not millennia."

In recent years, pastoralists have gained some bargaining power. The 2007 Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists focused on their rights and their main demands: customary laws, accessing water and pastures, improving marketing strategies for their produce, and getting better health care and education. Through the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pastoralist Knowledge Hub has been set up as a platform for indigenous pastoralists to exchange information and improve lobbying and development. But there's more to be done.

Women remain vulnerable

As is often the case, women remain particularly vulnerable in these situations. Despite women often doing the lion's share of the manual and agricultural labor in indigenous communities, including the milking and cheese-making or cultivating crops, as well as bringing up the family, they are just as often deprived of their land and human rights. Many are trying to survive in war-torn countries.

"In our societies it's not always permitted for women to be part of the decision-making process, or to own land or control the household money," said Duba. That's why microfinancing groups, and events such as the Global Gathering of Women Pastoralists in Gujarat, India, in 2010, are so important. "There's a huge need for animal protein in the world, and we can provide it naturally, with free-roaming animals without the need for industrialization."

"The world is changing, and so are pastoralists," said Sikku. "They want the Internet, cars and other commodities too. So the question for our communities is how to renew our culture without losing the traditions. How to see the past and take it into the future. We should listen to our traditional knowledge about how to administer the land and think 10 to 25 years ahead. We can't go backwards."

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