Kenyan Commons

The Myth Of Overgrazing

From Kenya: Promised Land. An Oxfam Country Profile, by Geoff Sayer, Oxfam 1998.

In the Maa ? the Maasai language ? you cannot say ‘I own this land’ ? only ‘I use this land’. For thousands of years the rangelands belonged to no one ? or to everyone. But farming societies based on private tenure of land have always viewed communal land-ownership with prejudice. Because livestock are owed by individuals, it was assumed that overgrazing and degradation of of vegetation would be the inevitable result. It was assumed that individuals competing for grazing resources would have no short-term incentive to conserve them.

This reasoning, known as ‘the tragedy of the commons‘, has more recently been rejected by researchers working in Africa’s arid lands. They argue that in the unstable dryland environment, where rainfall is unpredicatble both from year to year and in its geographical distribution each year, herds have to keep moving in search of food and water. Inevitably there are years in which drought affects an entire region and plant growth is prevented. At these times, animals will die or be sold, usually at very low prices. The most skilful herders will survive the drought; the less skilful may be reduced to destitution.

Each species has different requirements:Camels browse taller trees and shrubs; goats browse lower ones; and cattle and sheep graze on grasses. Camels prefer and benefit from a more brackish water than cattle and small stock.

When good rains return, the drought-hardy plant-file recovers quickly and is likely to remain undergrazed until livestock levels recover. The variability in rainfall limits the numbers of animals. Pastoralist economies are adapted to exploit this variability. Herders diversify their stock-holdings with a combination of small stock and camels, or stock and cattle, to reduce risks, for each species has different requirements..

Access to grazing land is not a free-for-all in pastoral communities it is usually managed by agreement among elders. But traditional range-managed strategies fall apart if access to land and resources is restricted. It is this that can result in degradation.

Traditional Herding Strategies

In general, a livestock-owner will try to maintain a large herd as an insurance against drought years, when animals will die or have to be sold to buy maize. A large herd can be split with some stock loaned to relatives, to reduce the risk of wholesale loss to disease or drought.

Grazing patterns depend on a number of factors:the season and its rainfall, the immediate needs of the animals, the stock movements of other herders, the presence of ticks and biting flies, security from raiding, and the proximity of water.

Grazing patterns depend on [a number of factors]. These changing factors must be constantly re-assessed. When conditions are good, the herder strives for rapid weight-gain and high milk yields.

Animals may move much farther from their home range:Camels range farther afield, within a grazing radius of about 18km from camp; cattle usually stay within 12km, and goats within 8km. Cattle need water every one or two days in a normal dry season, goats and sheep every three days, and camels every seven.

During the early dry season, small stock and camels look for remaining green forage and need little or no water. Cattle graze drier pastures. As the dry season progresses, access to water sources becomes more critical, and animals may move much farther from their home range.

Stock moves long distances:For camels this may be 50km, for cattle 30km, and for goats 20km.

The strategy during a widespread drought is to move stock long distances, often into areas with grazing but far from water sources. Stock losses will rise as weaker animals succumb to the two-day journey to water.

A destitute family would camp alongside families with herds.After milking, the families with stock would have a whip-round to collect milk for the families without stock. The impoverished herders would take animals on loan when they could, and their neighbours would encourage them to get back onto the ranges with their own herd.

Traditionally a destitute family would follow and camp alongside families with herds.

Pastoralist land-use strategies have developed over thousands of years as a means of survival in hostile, Unpredictable environments. Foreign donors, national governments an aid agencies have usually failed to understand the dynamics of indigenous rangeland-management and have tried to altar rather than support traditional practise. The experience of the pastoralists themselves was often ignored.


  1. natty Says:

    Just thought I’d give you an update, very mixed news. Almost a month since Katrina hit and New Orleans is still closed. They were going to let us into Uptown today to check on our stuff (last we heard, water missed getting into our house proper by four inches, but we’re worried about the mold eating everything), but Hurricane Rita screwed that up. Not going back to New Orleans except to salvage what we can , Toby and my jobs are still under 20 feet of water. Got a job in a law office today that pays a LOT, trying to start bellydancing here. University of South Carolina is going to pick up Toby adjunct next semester. Good motorcycle roads. Found a cool coffee shop. I think we’ll bounce pretty well.

    Hurricane Rita is a 5 and actually even worse than Katrina, though not quite as big (area of destruction from Katrina was the size of the entirety of Great Britain). If Rita keeps this up overnight, she’ll be the worst hurricane in the Atlantic Ever. Looks like it’s going to hit Galveston and Houston, the third largest city in the US behind NY and LA. Will wipe out all the American oil drilling and refining that Katrina didn’t kill. They’re afraid that rain and wind will be enough to breach the levees in New Orleans again and reflood everything.

    Toby and I almost wish Rita would just go and hit new orleans again, the city’s already pretty much gone, no sense in taking out Houston, too. Two months of hurricane season to go.

    This is so fucked up, can’t even describe.

  2. Mark Says:

    Natty, your update is timely. I heard about Rita this morning and, of course, I was wondering about you guys. Where have you settled? Maybe you want to write email and tell me, how have have you found somewhere to live now and what exactly is the plan for going back to salvage stuff. It sounds dreadful. Thanks for checking in here again.

    Meanwhile, vaguely on the topic of this post, and after I had a go at Monsanto about a year ago, I wanted to bring up the question of their patenting something to do with pigs. I dont have time to check out all the outraged web sites with titles like Monsanto want to patent all the pigs in the world but if someone knows enough to summarise what really happened, that’d be great.

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