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Poverty Times #2

The role of culture and knowledge in livelihood security

“The paradox and crisis of development arise from the mistaken identification of culturally perceived poverty with real material poverty, and the mistaken identification of the growth of commodity production as providing better sustenance. In actual fact, there is less water, less fertile soil, less genetic wealth as a result of the development process.”By D. L. Manzolillo Nightingale

Vandana Shiva, 1992

Most approaches to measuring poverty use yardsticks that are meaningful from a traditional view of development, such as income or access to schools and hospitals. These have met with criticism because they fail to take into account livelihoods that operate outside monetary systems and alternative indicators of well-being. Additional techniques have been devised for use in these situations, and as a result, studies where “poverty” is measured using different approaches yield different populations of “poor” people (Laderchi et al., 2003).

By the same token, wealth can be found in natural resources, and the knowledge that people use to manage them. In the case of subsistence pastoralism, the management of traditional livestock breeds and the use of locally available natural resources can be seen as a form of wealth. For example pastoralists can optimise livestock productivity by using the best grazing areas available at any one time, and minimising the loss of livestock to predation, raiding, diseases and climate variability, especially droughts. They also use environmental and behavioural knowledge to assess rangeland and livestock condition, to decide where and when to settle, and when to provide supplementary feeds and minerals, all of which are important influences in livestock and rangeland productivity (Ole Lengisugi and Mziray 1996, Geerlings et al., 2002, Western and Manzolillo Nightingale 2003). Pastoralists also use their wealth of ethnoveterinary knowledge to optimise animal health (Ole Lengisugi and Mziray 1996).

Livestock owners can also control the genetic composition of the herd through selective breeding to achieve certain goals, including increasing efficiency of milk and meat production
under highly seasonal or drought conditions, or the ability to subsist on poor quality fodder and little water (Western and Manzolillo Nightingale 2003). Other traits that can be maximised include colour, domesticity, mothering instincts, herdability, disease resistance or ability to walk long distances. Traditional livestock breeds, animal husbandry and the management of natural resources based on detailed ecological knowledge are all part of a set of survival strategies for subsistence pastoralists. Unfortunately, traditional livestock breeds are being lost through cross breeding with exotic animals and through development policies that promote different breeds and livestock products. The alienation and subdivision of land for conversion to agriculture, urban areas, or national parks has resulted in loss of grazing areas for livestock. The demand for timber, fuel wood and charcoal,
and agricultural expansion has also caused the loss of many valuable medicinal plants. The result is a loss in coping capacity for livestock owners, their confinement to even more marginal areas, loss of livestock numbers, and the impoverishment of those pastoralists who are not able to successfully adopt alternative livelihoods.

With the loss of their assets, pastoralists are at risk of greater vulnerability and insecurity. Many pastoral communities that once could have been considered well off in terms of access, control and management of natural resources were declared “poor” according to a set of externally derived standards. As a result of well meaning interventions, some of them have ended up being “poor” by any standards.

However, traditional management systems and resources could provide opportunities for improvement of livelihoods of many people in pastoral areas, and should be seen as ways of promoting security and generating benefits. Traditional forms of livestock husbandry can be combined with tourism, hunting and harvesting of timber and other products from woodland areas and forests to preserve both the natural resources and the traditional livelihoods they support. A new development paradigm should be based on the following points:

  • Flexibility is key to successful management,as well as efficient tracking to take advantage of opportunities provided by resources, as and when they become available.
  • In production and marketing, switch from a “beef” or “meat” oriented paradigm, to one which has a broader set of objectives defined in collaboration with the community in question.
  • Protect user rights and access to key resources needed at different times of the year.
  • Boost institutions at the local level to help communities maintain access to resources, and equitable distribution of benefits. These can be a combination of old (traditional), and new institutions.
  • Improve the monitoring of local environmental conditions through collaboration between community members and scientists.
  • Come up with ways of diversifying opportunities for pastoralists, both on and off the land. For opportunities on the land, promote those that are compatible with pastoralism.
  • With respect to indigenous livestock breeds: promote documentation, genetic impact assessments, evaluation of economic prospects in their use, protection of intellectual property rights, and the equitable distribution of benefits derived from this property.
  • With respect to traditional forms of veterinary knowledge and practices: promote understanding and documentation of important (and useful) local medicinal practices and plants, evaluation and protection of medicinal and economic benefits, for communities that have developed and used the knowledge.
  • Ensure benefit sharing from other natural resources on which a community depends.

Deborah Nightingale is an anthropologist and environmental management consultant based in Kenya. She has been a contributor to the Africa Environment Outlook Report, published by unep.

Geerlings, E., E. Mathias and Ilse Kohler-Rollefson 2002. Securing tomorrow’s food: promoting the sustainable use of farm animal genetic resources. League for Pastoral Peoples, Ober-Ramstadt, Germany 2002.
Laderchi, C. R., R. Saith and F. Stewart 2003. Everyone agrees we need poverty reduction, but not what this means: does this matter? Paper prepared for the wider Conference on Inequality, Poverty and Human Well-being, Helsinki, 30-31 May 2003.Ole Lengisugi, N. and W. R. Mziray 1996. The role of indigenous knowledge in sustainable ecology and ethnobotanical practices among pastoral Maasai in Tanzania: Olkonerei Simanjiro experience. In: Ethnobiology and Conservation of Cultural and Biological Diversity: Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress on Ethnobiology. Christine. H. S. Kabuye, Ed. Nairobi, Kenya September 2-6, 1996
Shiva, V. 1992. Recovering the real meaning of sustainability in: The Environment in Question: Ethics and Global Issues, D.E. Cooper and Joy A. Palmer, eds. London, Routledge.
Western, D. and D.L. Manzolillo Nightingale 2003. Environmental change and the vulnerability of pastoralists to drought: the Maasai in Amboseli, Kenya in: Africa Environment Outlook Case Studies United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.