African herders have been pushed into destitution and crime
At the start of every dry season fires creep southwards across the Central African Republic (CAR). Kasper Agger, a Dane who works for African Parks, a South Africa-based conservation group, can see them on his laptop thanks to a piece of NASA-made software that plots benign-looking flame symbols like boy scouts’ campfires onto a Google Earth map. Through December and January the fires edge close to Chinko, a vast nature reserve in the CAR. When the fires reach the park boundary, a light aircraft is dispatched to shower leaflets over the smoulder. Below, herders who come from hundreds of miles away receive illustrated messages in Sango (a local language), Arabic and French, warning them not to chop down trees, carry guns, hunt game or poach elephants within the park.
For herders to encroach on government and private land is normal in Africa, but the size of the herds, the involvement of political and military bigwigs as cattle barons, and the proliferation of weapons have all got out of hand. They are increasingly fuelling conflict and eroding authority in states that are already fragile. Pastoralism has had to adapt so radically that it is often barely recognisable as the way of life that has been followed for hundreds of years.
Rapid population growth, the spread of fences and cities, and the annexation of herders’ land have shrunk the space where pastoralists can roam. Governments tend to favour settled farmers over mobile or nomadic ones, and to see food security in terms of maize and cassava rather than meat and milk. Climate change makes herders’ livelihoods ever more precarious. An African Union study in 2010 estimated that 268m Africans (about a quarter of the population at the time) were pastoralists. But that number is steadily shrinking.
photo credit: Rod Waddington