July 23, 2024

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Invest in Planet Earth and Its People: In Defence of Nomadic Pastoralism

Iyce Malhotra and Sandeep Chachra

(Iyce is Policy Officer and Sandeep is Executive Director. Both are with ActionAid Association. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the organisation.)

Nomadic pastoralism is where livestock are herded to seek new grazing lands and pastures. Among one of the oldest occupations, nomadic pastoralism continues to be a way of life and livelihood for millions of people worldwide and in India. And the challenges pastoralist communities face, continue to increase. There is a real danger that this century may see the demise of the pastoral way of life and nomadic pastoralism. Is that a desired future?

A saga of precarities

Over the decades, there has been a significant loss and degradation of grasslands and range lands. For instance, data presented by the Government of India at the United Nations Convention to Combat Climate Change (UNCCD) at the Conference of Parties (COP 14) reported that India had lost 31% of grassland in a decade between 2002-2015 and about 19% of common lands during the same period. 

In academic, policy and social narratives, there is uncertainty over what has caused this loss and degradation of grazing and pasture lands. Our social narrative tends to blame overgrazing and overstocking for loss and degradation. However, a study done by ActionAid Association among 27 communities in the year 2014 revealed the size of herds has reduced. Hence overstocking could not be the issue.

Loss of commons such as grazing lands and water bodies on which cattle depend have been due to privatisation of land, enclosures and agricultural reclamation, and diversion of lands to development projects. A steady decline in area under common pool resources has been recorded in the country between the 1980s and 2015.

Furthermore, climate change and extreme weather events have meant disturbances in ecosystems, adversely impacting the livelihood of pastoralists. For example, the 2019 drought in Maharashtra led to a significant decline in fodder production, affecting the availability of feed for cattle.

Pastoralists face multiple precarities overlaid on the destruction of commons and non-recognition of rights to pasture land and movement. British colonial rule laid the basis of the stigma they face by notifying most nomadic tribes as “criminal”. Though 1956 saw the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act and the denotification of erstwhile “Criminal Tribes”, – the bias, prejudice and oppression continue. Furthermore, the nomadic and semi-nomadic way of life makes securing identification papers essential to access welfare schemes and policies challenging.

Why must nomadic pastoralism be protected and promoted?

We must recognise that pastoralism is a healthy, viable system. Essential for sustaining millions of our people who otherwise, given the situation of employment worldwide, are likely to join a large pool of precarious wage labour, nomadic pastoralism offers a way of life dignified for its followers and sustaining for our planet. Some studies estimate that the livestock sector comprises 4.5% of India’s GDP, with about two-thirds deriving from pastoral production.

Pastoral people are ecological defenders, conserving our bio-diversities. Their cattle convert native vegetation directly into food without the intermediate stage of cultivation. They help in cross-pollination and farming practices in a symbiotic relationship. Their regular migration ensures the dynamic use of resources, selection of breeds and symbiotic linkages with farmers.

Deeply rooted in cultural continuity, pastoralism is an identity and a source of proud dignity to pastoralists, not reducible merely to profession and source of income. This way of life has been home to diverse and evolving cultural traditions and knowledge. Nomadic pastoralism works on social order rooted in cooperation and solidarity involving caring and sharing; and a more decisive role and autonomy for women, at least in the economic sphere, where women control the market. Traits that can be encouraged to emerge more strongly as feminist solidarity economies that are ecologically wise.

What do pastoralists need?

Firstly, the identification and enumeration of pastoralists are required. While some states like Gujarat have begun this exercise, this needs to be done nationally. Data is essential before formulating any policy.  A comprehensive national land use policy with proper safeguards to common land should be urgent priority. A national grazing policy, should follow, to ensure the sustainable use of grasslands. Existing state laws should also be amended to stop diversion of grazing land for industrial purposes. Pastoralists’ right to grazing land should be protected by providing them with permits granting free inter-state movement. To combat accessibility, formal allocation in the forest area and creating a national union to work on forest rights and pastoralist advocacy are required. Mapping of migratory routes, state-sponsored awareness and training programs for both forest officials and pastoralists and implementation of the Forest Rights Act at the block level are integral measures.

It is imperative to recognise and laud the role of pastoralists as ecological frontline defenders who play a positive role in climate mitigation. Their lifestyle significantly contributes to combatting climate; however, they are adversely impacted by it rather severely. Therefore, the climate change-induced loss and damages pastoralist communities suffer should be assessed, computed and duly compensated. 

The health and preservation of livestock are also vital. In this regard, health schemes should be implemented based on livestock densities and movement patterns. A nationwide livestock census, which would give a state-level idea of livestock numbers and compositions, should be conducted. Since mobile herders are not stationed at their registered residential addresses, first aid kits can be provided to herders, which can be helpful in remote paths.

Finally, there is a need to create and encourage back-end and market linkages not only centric to bovine products. For example, a scheme like the One District – One Product initiative by the government could be conceived for products using raw materials from livestock commonly reared by pastoralists.

Communities that have not gone down the road of industrial development and over-extractive, exploitative and polluting production processes may hold the key to the way out of the climate crisis we face. So, when we invest in the planet, we need to invest in these communities.