Pastoralist-to-Pastoralist International Virtual Form on Covid-19 : Featuring pastoralists from Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia & Tanzania

Pastoralist-to-Pastoralist discussion on Covid-19

Featuring pastoralists from Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia & Tanzania

International Virtual Forum April 19, 2021

By Troy Sternberg, Joana Roque de Pinho, Angela Kronenburg


Pastoralists from Asia and Africa led a unique international discussion on April 19, 2021. This inspiring event brought together pastoralists from Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Mongolia and Tanzania to talk about their lives, herding and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The ‘Covid-19 and Pastoralists – International Virtual Forum’ was the first effort to foster pastoral debate and engagement across continents. Organised by the University of Oxford School of Geography1 and the CONVERGE ‘Covid-19 in Drylands’ Working Group1, the 2.5 hour forum brought together global pastoralists for their first discussion and exchange. Pastoralists participated in the Zoom event by mobile phones and computers from gers (yurts), homes, cars and in town where internet signals were available. The lively discussion raised many interesting points with a Kyrgyz herder commenting ‘we are not different from herders from Africa and Mongolia’.

As a totally new experience we did not know what to expect, especially coordinating participants from different time zones across four continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America). The event was focused on Covid-19 impact on pastoralists and government policies put in place to deal with the pandemic. Pastoralists first introduced themselves, their lives and locations. Whilst the Africans spoke English, translators quickly informed the Mongolians and Kyrgyz of what was said and then explained their answers to the Africans. The pastoralists, women and men, jumped right in, explaining with grace where they come from, their conditions and experiences. With time, all got used to the format, initial shyness dissipated and people figured out how best to connect and speak. As it was evening in Mongolia the herders were dressed in traditional ‘del’ outfits whilst the Africans, one dressed in Maasai ceremonial attire, were in the midst of daily activity. That they all took time from their day to engage and discuss their lives to pastoralists and interested observers was impressive.


Pastoralists started talking about the challenges Covid-19 presented. These included impacts on work and livelihoods, children’s education, restrictions on movement and travel and the need for government support so the countryside was not forgotten. The Kenyans and Tanzanians stressed how the loss of tourism severely affected their income; the Kyrgyz and Mongolians spoke about the difficulty selling products (meat, milk, cashmere). All agreed that with schools closed their children’s education was suffering and that food prices were increasing. Regular medical check-ups had been cancelled. There were comments about a lack of Covid-19 information, its spread, and how communities learned about the pandemic. Government restrictions ended cross-border livestock sales (Kenya-Tanzania), closed markets and stopped trade (all); there was ‘nothing good from Covid-19’. The Kyrgyz spoke clearly about how the government needed to better prepare (food, masks, medicine) for a future Covid-19 crisis. Positively, the Africans had learned to not depend on one thing for income (tourism) and to ‘expand our minds’. Mongolians spoke about an increased demand for high quality meat and milk, better prices from urban demand for healthy food and helpful government support payments. Families had more time together as children were home from school, joining in herding work and culture. In places alcohol sales had been restricted (in Mongolia to ‘be healthier’). The Kyrgyz, perhaps speaking for all, ‘loved freedom’ so did not like the restrictions but knew they were necessary. The pandemic positively stressed the value of livestock keeping and the strength of traditional knowledge and practices that could be shared with younger generations.


The best part of the event was the breakout sessions and the last collective 30 minutes when the pastoralists spoke directly with each other, asking questions and commenting on pastoral practices in the different countries. This was a lively discussion and showed herding similarities across continents. The themes were relevant to all and interesting to the audience. The Tanzanians and Kenyans wanted to know if the government was introducing new livestock breeds, the Mongolians talked about how government Covid-19 policies affected them. A Kenyan asked the Mongolians for advice on how to deal with middlemen who ‘make big profit’ though the herders have tended and cared for the animals since they were born. A Kenyan had 50-100 hectares to graze their animals; the Mongolians 3 kilometres. Animal breed and products, the price of sheep and cows, feedlots, quality of grasses, differences in daily litres of milk produced and even working hours were debated. Herders commented that many people did not believe in Covid-19 across the countries.


There was pride in how the pandemic showed the strength of pastoralism and that customary skills were valued. Relying on animal products and traditional medicines enabled herders to avoid cities and Covid-19 outbreaks. The positive messages showed the viability of pastoralism and its strength in minimising risk. The interest and enjoyment of herder-to-herder discussion was inspiring. After millennia of mobile pastoralism, it took the Covid-19 pandemic to bring herders together virtually. Now that the first connections have been made, the herders and audience eagerly await future interaction between global pastoralists.



1This event was funded by The Research & Public Policy Partnership Scheme, a partnership between the University of Oxford and the UK Civil Service Policy Profession (2009-RPPPS-553). The theme is from the ‘COVID-19 in African, Asian and North American Drylands’ Working Group, a National Science Foundation-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research Network/CONVERGE facility working group, Natural Hazards Center – University of Colorado Boulder, US (

Nomadic Peoples 25.1 is Now Online!

A message from Saverio Krätli, editor of Nomadic Peoples:

Nomadic Peoples 25.1 is online:


This issue includes four articles, a special section on ‘pastoralism, development and climate change’, four research reports and two book reviews. The articles are about pastoral spaces and mechanisms of sedentarisation amongst the Bedouin of the Israeli Negev; the interplay of state-assisted settlement, land speculation and politically loaded nomadic identity amongst former nomadic pastoralists in Jordan; the relationship between mobile pastoralists and the new organised and armed non-state actors in the Sahel (Niger); and economic diversification amongst nomadic Dukha (Tsaatan) reindeer herders in the most northern region of Mongolia.

 Two of the research reports look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on pastoralists, respectively in Mongolia and in Ethiopia. Of the other two, one presents an innovative programme of legal assistance to pastoralists in the Sahel, and one is about the politics behind the recent attention received by pastoral nomads in the Indian Himalayas and Pir Panjals. Finally, the reviewed books are about the politics of gold mining in Mongolia between neoliberalisation and indigenisation, and about deep-rooted socio-economic change and continuity in Turkana (Kenya).

The special section on ‘pastoralism, development and climate change’ is a collection of eight reflections by scholars of pastoralism following the launch of David Attenborough’s latest call about climate change. White Horse Press has kindly made this entire section freely accessible.




Saverio Krätli

Editor, Nomadic Peoples


Photo by Greta Semplici



Last September (2020), David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet was premiered across the globe. Described as a personal ‘witness statement’, the film is the latest call by the then-93-year-old British naturalist to reverse our impact on global climate and biodiversity.

Breathtaking images from a lifetime of documentary making flow on the screen, but this is no ordinary nature documentary. Once stripped down to the bone, the message is simple and terrible. Life on Earth has seen five mass-extinction events in the last four billion years, always triggered by an accumulation of atmospheric carbon and consequent increase in the average global temperature. We are now looking at the sixth one right in the eyes, just a few human generations ahead of us. In this case though, it is not a catastrophe built by a million years of volcanic activity, but by less than 200 years of fossil-fuel-based economic acceleration. Today there is nothing to stop us unless we stop ourselves. A fatal disconnect between the global economy and the natural environment is sending biodiversity into a decline, turning the planet into a place where we cannot live. ‘This is not about saving our planet’ – concludes Attenborough with an unexpected deviation from the conservationist tradition – ‘The truth is, with or without us, the natural world will rebuild … This is about saving ourselves’. The narrative refers to an undescribed ‘humanity’ but the images on screen, the pin on the fossil-fuel economy and the 200-year time frame, leave little doubt as to what is behind the making of the sixth mass extinction.

The evidence presented in the film puts into perspective the ongoing debate on the alleged ecological inefficiency of ‘traditional’ food production systems such as pastoralism and most family farming. Outside the field of vision of pastoral development, debating stocking rates and green-house-gas emission from the enteric fermentation of livestock feeding on pasture, ecological impact of epochal relevance unfolds. The world’s rainforests halved in little over half a century. Summer ice in the Arctic reduced by forty per cent in the last forty years. Freshwater life reduced by eighty per cent ‘by damming, polluting, and over-extracting rivers and lakes’. Some thirty per cent of fish stocks overfished to critical levels in less than seventy years of industrial fishing. Discussing the ecological inefficiency of pastoralism in relation to climate change — even if, of course, there is always room for improvement — is like discussing a dripping pipe in a cabin while opening gashes in the hull of the ship.

But there is also another dimension in which Attenborough’s film bears relevance to the current debate on pastoralism. The film emphasises the relative stability of the Holocene, the last 10,000 years in the life of the planet, during which the average global temperature never wavered up or down by more than one degree Celsius. This relative stability in the average global temperature is described as due to the continuous making of biodiversity: nature’s inherent variability. Following the last mass extinction, which wiped out 75 per cent of species on the planet, it took life 65 million years of reconstruction until – says Attenborough – ‘the biodiversity of the Holocene helped to bring stability … To restore stability to our planet we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed.’

Specialists on pastoralists and the drylands might recognise a pattern here: a relative stability resting on variability. Efforts to eliminate variability can disrupt the relative stability. Think of Walker et al. (1981) warning that ‘comparison of the dynamics of various savannah and other natural systems leads to a conclusion that the resilience of the systems decreases as their stability (usually induced) increases’. Or of Behnke and Scoones (1993) describing pastoralists’ herd management as ‘an emphasis on exploiting environmental heterogeneity rather than attempting to manipulate the environment to maximise stability and uniformity’.

One of the examples used by Attenborough in this regard is about replacing biodiversity with monocultures. In the case of pastoralism, the same approach reduces the variability in the processes of production: replacing mobility with sedentarisation, local domestic animal diversity with uniform exotic breeds, flexible communal tenure with individual exclusive property rights…

For a long time, the variability of the natural environment has been represented as a constraint to agriculture and development. Efforts within this tradition have sought to ‘externalise’ variability, shielding production from the vagaries of nature. At the origins of animal production as a scientific discipline, during the industrial revolution in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, the crucial novelty was the project of ‘emancipation’ of animal husbandry from the natural environment (Porcher 2017). This conceptual framework, designed to keep the natural environment out of sight, has been the default blueprint for the analysis and representation of pastoral systems in development (FAO in press). The legacy of understanding animal production as hinged on the emancipation from nature continues to translate even today into an understanding of pastoral development as emancipation from pastoralism (development out of pastoralism).[1]

Today, with little room to manoeuvre in order to keep global warming within a 1.5ºC increase — that is already fifty per cent above the average of the last 10,000 years — we badly need ways of saving both agriculture and the natural environment. Could making use of variability rather than fighting it be part of the solution? Pastoral systems specialise to do exactly that: work with nature’s variability rather than against it (Kaufmann 2007; Krätli 2008; IIED 2015). They don’t need to isolate from the natural environment. On the contrary, they are equipped to operate with the variability of nature and seize the opportunities it harbours; above all, its valuable if largely unpredictable concentrations of potential inputs ‘hidden’ inside variable patterns and modest averages. For food systems specialised to work with nature, variability is not an obstacle but an asset. The productivity of a pastoral herd is increased because of variability in the ecosystems and the animals’ and the herders’ active engagement with it.

All livestock production will eventually have to learn to work with the natural environment rather than constructing it as an outer space for externalities. Innovative approaches inspired by agroecological principles, like holistic management and regenerative grazing, effectively move ‘modern’ animal husbandry closer to pastoralism, building on the same logic of biomimicry and working with the ecosystem. Distant observers longing for modernisation continue to see pastoral systems as belonging to the past. But as years go by those visions of modernisation are themselves more and more outdated.  Pastoralists, on the other hand, seem more and more already in the future.

This special section builds on David Attenborough’s ‘witness statement’ as an entry point for a reflection on the debate about pastoralism, development and the environment. Scholars of pastoralism from the editorial board of Nomadic Peoples and a few others were invited to watch the film and send a comment.

The exercise remains open. Contributions (500 to 1,000 words) will be published on the website of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples. Anybody interested in taking part is invited to get in touch with the journal or directly with the Commission.





Behnke, R.H. and I. Scoones 1993. ‘Rethinking range ecology: implications for rangeland management in Africa’. In R.H. Behnke, I. Scoones I. and C. Kerven (eds), Range Ecology at Disequilibrium: New Models of Natural Variability and Pastoral Adaptation in African Savannas. London: Overseas Development Institute.

IIED. 2015. Valuing Variability. New Perspectives on Climate Resilient Drylands Development. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

FAO. In Print. Pastoralism: Making Variability Work. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

IFAD. 2018. How to Do. Engaging with Pastoralists – a Holistic Development Approach. International Fund for Agricultural Development, Rome.

Kaufmann B.A. 2007. Cybernetic Analysis of Socio-biological Systems: The Case of Livestock Management in Resource-Poor Environments, Margraf Publishers GmbH, Weikersheim.

Krätli, S. 2008. Time to outbreed animal science? A cattle-breeding system exploiting structural unpredictability: the WoDaaBe herders in Niger, STEPS Working Paper 7, STEPS Centre, Brighton.

Krätli S. 2019. Pastoral Development Orientation Framework. Aachen: Misereor.

Porcher, J. 2017. The Ethics of Animal Labor. A Collaborative Utopia. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillian, Springer.

Walker, B.H., D. Ludwig, C.S. Holling and R.M.  Peterman. 1981. ‘Stability of semi-arid savanna grazing systems’. Journal of Ecology 69 (2): 473–498.

[1] ‘Development out of pastoralism’ is explained in Krätli (2019). In discussing the theory of change for new projects, recent IFAD guidelines for a holistic approach to pastoral development warn that ‘Encouraging people to move out of pastoralism may lead to greater poverty’ (2018: 25).