The increasing frequency and severity of drought and other climate shocks in the developing world’s great drylands threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of poor food producers, driving many into chronic poverty. Although livestock are among the most important assets to poor households in the drylands, and their loss often traps families in long-lasting poverty, little systematic research has focused on interventions to support development of dryland pastoral systems.
Excluding Antarctica, rangelands make up about 70% of the Earth’s surface and Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands, which are used predominately for extensive livestock grazing, comprise nearly half of the continent’s land mass. Most of the Horn of Africa gravely afflicted by drought in 2011 is made up of the drier drylands (0–300 mm of rainfall a year), where livestock production dominates livelihoods.
Despite the recurring specter of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, pastoral herding usually works well over the longer term, with nomadic farming, for example, about 20% more productive than ranching in terms of annual calf and milk production. The pastoral livestock sector is not only productive and critical to food security but also an optimal way to manage and maintain drylands and the livelihoods of those who live off them.
Livestock enterprises are not only a major source of income for people living in and off drylands, but also provide up to 50% of the agricultural gross domestic product of African countries and much of the meat and milk consumed in these countries: 90% of the meat consumed in East Africa, for example, comes from pastoral herds. Rangelands are productive—and potentially very productive. They are good filters of water, support much of the world’s remaining wildlife diversity and sequester carbon. Governments and donors looking for long-term solutions to drought-induced food insecurity should bear in mind that across much of the world’s vast drylands, herding rather than cropping is the only viable and sustainable form of food production possible.
Despite the productivity, and the great productive potential, of the world’s drylands, pastoralism is often still criticized as a backward mode of production that keeps people in poverty, degrades land and diminishes wildlife. Such views have tended to favour government policies that attempt to change viable pastoral production systems into inappropriate ranching or settled agriculture schemes.
Expert opinion agrees that the best way to tap into the potential of the drylands is to build on the foundation of their livestock economies rather than ignoring them or seeking to replace them. This will demand more judicious land-use policies, better roads, functioning livestock markets, and better access by pastoral communities to information and services, among other developments. Promising livestock options for dryland herders include support for migratory herding, pastoral insurance and payments for environmental services.
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