The widespread image of a pastoralist is an uncultivated person living in a remote area, absolutely ignorant of modernity, who can easily turn into someone in need of food aid as soon as the next drought strikes. This is in contrast with their importance worldwide: in spite of the tremendous uncertainties about their numbers (perhaps 100-500 million), they graze on more than half of the world’s land,1 with India (estimated 88 million) and the Sahel (estimated 50 million) as the areas with more sizeable pastoralist populations.2,3

While pastoralist areas are often victims of food security crises, with many of the world’s armed conflicts originating from these areas,3-7 most people ignore that pastoralist livelihoods intrinsically adapted to the variability of their ecological systems.8 For thousands of years, pastoralists thrived in arid, cold, and mountainous areas, in settings assumed to be poor for food production but where they have been successful in producing nutritious foods.1,9 Mobility has allowed them to access patchy and unpredictable resources, while communal land management reduced their risk for crisis. Resilience is thus inextricably linked with pastoralist food security.

Getting valuable products such as milk, meat, or fibers from animals in areas where no crops can be produced while keeping livestock safe from predators has made pastoralists powerful and wealthy groups throughout history. So why have they been ravaged with famines during the whole 20th century, and why are they currently one of the more marginalized human groups?

The rationale behind pastoralist livelihoods explained above has gained much weight among scientists recent last years, but misconceptions persist among policymakers.10  Development interventions therefore still rely strongly on poor understanding and directives issued with little regard to realities in the ground.4,11 This may be why persistent food security and poverty problems are found  in pastoralist areas, with interventions that rather undermine pastoralist livelihoods instead of supporting them.12 Barriers to pastoralist education and empowerment prove that these interventions are designed by outsiders – inevitably from sedentary cultures – and usually misguided from the outset.13 If not for the tragic consequences, this situation might be described as ironic, as these pastoralist cultures are the ones which have evolved in harsh environments where uncertainty and resilience are inextricably linked to livelihoods.

The problem is therefore counterproductive top-down interventions that put pastoralists at risk, undermining their resilience strategies. A methodology is lacking that allows outsiders from development aid programs to quickly comprehend the logic of pastoralist systems.

Respectful Bottom-up Approaches

Somali pastoralists come to Harshim town from neighboring areas in search of water for their livestock.

A fundamental requirement for successful interventions is to have respect for the affected group. Pastoralist practice started around 10,000 years ago.14 When newcomers believe they have a better understanding of these livelihood systems, which have been practiced by communities for so long, it can come across as very arrogant or disrespectful. Additionally, such a mentality could undermine adaptation strategies, which have allowed pastoralists to survive as a culturally distinct group. Furthermore, the fundamental basic differences with sedentary systems should confer an advantage. Given that domestication of livestock (except reindeer) originated from sedentary agriculturalists,15 differences in lifestyle would not have been adopted if they were not advantageous.

Innovation and Constraints

In that sense, innovation in pastoralist societies is required. The high degree of adaptation to their environment wouldn’t have happened without a dynamic culture able to cope with changes. But this innovation cannot happen through changes in the fundamental relationships that pastoralists have with their environments. Environmental conditions and economic and social arrangements deriving from them (such as mobility and communality agreements or herd management) strongly shape pastoralist livelihoods and food security, and environmental change is much more static than the social or technological changes of the last century. Some conventional technologies that have thrived in other settings have not been adapted by pastoralists in spite of their availability. Following a bottom-up understanding, there must be good reason for this.

Pastoralist communities are the best judges of the adaptability of technology for their needs, especially among the young generations. In the same way that it is fundamental that youngsters do not abandon their pastoralist communities for education, so that elders can pass along their wide range of ecological knowledge that their livelihood relies on,13 pastoralist youth are the main drivers for adopting innovations in both economy and policy.5 Adoption of innovations can be challenging.  For example, youth among the Turkana pastoralists in northern Kenya are attracted to the oil industry, which exacerbates social differences.16 But the youth have also been key to adopting health care innovations.17 Particular areas deserve new technologies which, if well adapted, offer the greatest opportunities for improvement. A good example is increased efficiency in money transactions through mobile phones, which can have a huge effect in poverty reduction,18 particularly in the case of pastoralists whose income increase by 50 percent in Kenya.19

The Tool: The Decision Matrix

Figure 1 proposes a simple decision matrix to analyze both practices observed among pastoralist communities and interventions or innovations proposed for pastoralist communities. The analysis requires thinking about these elements and whether the underlying determinant conditions leading to their success or failure in the past have changed in the present.

Figure 1: Decision matrix for pastoralist interventions. Pink quadrants denote fixed underlying conditions, while green quadrants denote changing underlying conditions and therefore opportunities for action.

The quadrants of the matrix are related along diagonal lines depending on whether the underlying determinants have changed, or not. As mentioned above, a respectful, bottom-up approach to pastoralist cultures will help understanding that, if the underlying determinants have not changed, it is very unlikely that old practices have stopped working. Similarly, it is very unlikely that innovations not taking into account these invariable factors will work. An informed knowledge of these determinants will also help understanding which old practices will no longer work, as well as which innovations can bring decisive change.

The matrix has been successfully used in a series of workshops aimed at improving the understanding of pastoralist systems and designed and implemented by IUCN’s World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP) between 2011 and 2015. The matrix itself showed to have a notable success in refining the analysis of current practices and interventions, both for policymakers and pastoralists involved in policy dialogue, by improving understanding and discarding unsubstantiated misconceptions. Pastoralists use the matrix as a tool for self-reflection on current practices and opportunities for improvement.

Application of the Matrix to Food Security and Livelihood Issues

Baggara nomads arrive in North Kordofan in Sudan for wet season grazing.

A review of the situations where the presented decision matrix applies helps in its understanding. Some commonly encountered practical examples below help to identify what kinds of situations can be allocated to which quadrant.

1st – 4th Quadrants: Underlying Determinants Remain Static

Pastoralism takes place only in areas where crop production is unsuitable. This is why, even if pastoralist culture is highly adaptable and evolving, the ecological properties of pastoralist territories remain static, conditioning the economic and social organization of pastoralist livelihoods. Ignoring these facts doom interventions to failure.

  • Mobility and communal land tenure vs. sedentarization and land privatization: Pastoralists shifted from the economic center to the periphery,20 triggering external input from sedentary perspectives. Push for sedentarization and fencing ignores the static ecological determinants driving these practices. Such interventions increase conflict and decrease food security, as shown recently by Snorek et al., among a myriad of other studies.21
  • Drought reserves vs. conversion into crops: Pastoralists in drylands move livestock during seasons, having also drought reserves for especially dry years in otherwise unsuitable insect-infested wetlands.22 Livestock is excluded from dry-season grazed riverine areas when converted into intensive agriculture, losing the opportunity to use the vast lands grazed during the humid season and leading to a net economic loss in the whole system.23 Occupation of drought reserves adds serious food security issues for pastoralists, often triggering conflict.22 Again, static ecological conditions can’t be ignored.
  • Traditional adapted breeds vs. improved breeds: Adapted breeds that match local ecological conditions look thin and unproductive when compared with industrial breeds. Newcomers often propose replacing them with intensive breeds, for theoretically higher production. Local breeds yield far less outputs under intensive conditions but they have been selected for resilience and frugality in an unpredictable ecological setting. Comparably, a sports car cannot outperform a four wheel drive vehicle on rough roads, nor compete in fuel consumption.10

3rd Quadrant: Past Practices that No Longer Work

Improvements in technology bring unforeseen changes in the way we relate to our surroundings.

  • Improved weaponry that curtails the effectiveness of traditional practices: Raiding may have been a method for redistributing livestock assets, and served as pastoralists’ main private wealth source, especially after crises.25 More sophisticated weaponry multiplies its damages, though, including casualties/fatalities and exacerbating conflicts.3,25 Higher sophistication also improves and hence imbalances traditional predator control, perhaps fostering meso-predators that are much more damaging than apex predators.26

2nd Quadrant: Innovations

This is the most exciting area to design innovations, as it is here where a decisive change can be brought to pastoralist communities.9 Unfortunately it is also the most neglected one, as it requires a good understanding of the pastoralist systems that cannot be brought by outsiders and therefore requires a dialogue with pastoralists themselves, as well as respect for pastoralist culture. Below is a sample of novel and exciting fields for innovation:

Youth of a pastoralist tribe in the Bayuda Desert, in northeast Sudan.
  • Land: Access to credit is important for development in increasingly integrated economies. However, banking does not accept pastoralists’ main asset – livestock – as a guarantee. This triggers the pursuit for land titles, endangering common usage – a fundamental risk-spreading strategy to maintain resilience. Innovative approaches seek keeping common usage while having private property titles.27 Alternatively, in forced land privatization contexts, common usage can be kept.28 Secure land access guarantees a sustainable use and governance structures that protect resilience and food security.29 Challenges posed by changing political conditions can be overcome through innovative pastoralist collectives.30
  • Technology: Mobile phone potential is immense, be it through improving connections between farmers and markets,31 connections to financial services,18,19 or through provision of extension services. Residue management can bring additional income to pastoralists, such as yielding biogas.1
  • Education: Pastoralist children have traditionally learned their whole complex livelihood system inside their communities. But in a changing world, formal education is fundamental for successful innovation and for defending their rights. Schooling is unfortunately not adapted to pastoralist realities, confronting pastoralists with either letting their children learn about pastoralism, or joining formal education systems. Adequate education systems are fundamental, with full involvement and sympathy both from authorities and pastoralist families.1,32
  • Women and economic diversification: The incorporation of yet non-commercialized pastoralist products into markets and the improvement of market chains is a fundamental step in increasing pastoralist income and thereby pastoralist food security. This simply can’t be conceived without a much greater participation of pastoralist women. They know best the potential challenges of these changes, for example in the nutritional needs of their families,9 to which the impact of milk commercialization is critical.33 Increased empowerment and decision making roles of women within pastoralist communities, partly thanks to fairer access to education, provides a very important opportunity.


Solutions for pastoralist areas rely first and foremost on respect for the pastoralist culture and understanding of their adaptation to local conditions, accepting that they have survived thousands of years. Building on this understanding and respect, it is simple to understand what innovative development options are available for pastoralist communities, invariably based on the responses the communities themselves have to new challenges and conditions. With this simple, bottom-up approach, it is easy to reverse the disastrous trend of investments and interventions that have undermined pastoralist food security and resilience.

While the marginalization of pastoralists, and the contradictions in how development interventions are applied to them, are particularly strong, the solutions stated here are equally valuable for a range of local food production systems. Bottom-up approaches taking advantage of local knowledge and endogenous innovation and adapted use of new technologies can decisively improve millions of livelihoods.


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Pablo Manzano

Pablo is a PhD in Rangeland Ecology with 15 years of experience in pastoralism. Starting with ecological research in Spain, he then moved into social, legal, and economic issues, collaborating with NGOs...

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