Pastoralism isn’t the most en vogue topic in the world of food. The shepherds and herders who raise their livestock by moving them between different areas to graze are part of an agricultural group that is marginalized within the current food system, and often overlooked.
It is an area that still needs to be mapped. Even the UN can’t give a precise figure on the number of pastoralists currently active in the world today – estimates put it at several hundred million. Given such numbers it is strange that more research is not being done into their practices and that we are not doing more to help them survive.
Pastoralism has a reputation problem. It is seen as a form of agriculture that is not in line with current agricultural practices; it is one that cannot keep up with the pace of change and should be placed on the historical scrapheap. “Pastoralists are voiceless and placeless,” laments Lalji Desai, a traditional herder from India.
But progress is in the eye of the beholder. Herders possess huge amounts of knowledge. They know the flora, fauna and microclimate of their environment like the back of their hands. They have an innate understanding of the rare and forgotten breeds with which they work. And they have a wealth of artisanal knowledge: they know how to produce an array of unique products from cheeses to fabrics.
It’s something that cuts to the core of our current social, economic and environmental problems. We need to wake up to the potential offered by these agricultural systems. Grazing systems improve our soils and grasses, making them more fertile. They recycle nutrients into the soil, improve forage production and sequester C02 from the atmosphere. This allows biodiversity to flourish, reducing soil erosion and protecting the watershed.
In spite of all this, we do little to help them. Agricultural policies and initiatives favor industrial agriculture. Raw milk and raw milk by-products such as the cheeses produced by many shepherds cannot be sold on the market. They are often sold on the black market; eventually people are forced to abandon their traditional way of life. “King’s and colonialists have stolen our lands – now it’s happening with political leaders too,” says Lalji.
Slow Food is working alongside other NGOs to promote the work of herders. Through initiatives like Slow Food Presidia and the Terra Madre Indigenous Network parallel markets are being created and pressure is being placed on governments to implement favorable policy. Pastoral parliaments have been established, alongside global days that celebrate indigenous communities like herders.
Roba Bulga represents Slow Food in Ethiopia and was keen to speak about the Karrayyu pastoralists. The Karrayyu herd camels (now a Slow Food Presidium project) and live according to their customary law and cultural rights. They have lived like this for centuries, and knew about the amazing nutritious and health giving properties of camel’s milk long before the west. They live according to the seasons in spaces that were once marginal lands. Today the Karrayyu live in close contact with others. They herd their camels across highways and visit nearby towns to top up their mobile phones: “We are adapting to change,” says Roba.
Maybe it’s time we did more to help them.