Let’s talk about sustainable pastoralism


Young herders from the indigenous Samburu pastoral community herd their family cattle on January 24, 2017. PHOTO | AFP

As I get older, the inconsistencies around me never get less bemusing. But perhaps amongst the most bewildering, these days, is the mish-mash that is our approach to resources.

On the one hand, Kenya is so green. We have moved our electricity production to renewable resources, from hydro to geothermal, wind and even a little solar. It always surprises me that we don’t do more solar, in fact, sat right on the equator as we are and with more sunlight than almost anywhere.

But, with or without solar, we now run majorly on ‘sustainable’ energy.

And there is the word: the ‘sustainable’ word. Meaning we can carry on running our lights and our phones from our main-grid wind-powered, geothermal-powered, water-powered electricity maybe forever, and we aren’t depleting the wind or the earth’s warmth.

We also have the toughest laws on plastic bags in the world, as far as I know, with that hefty fine for even owning a plastic bag, to ensure we don’t use them and then they don’t go into our rivers, sea, and landfill and exist still in a hundred years’ time, for our children’s children’s children’s children’s children to clear up or live around.

Plastic bags, it turned out, were not sustainable. We couldn’t just keep on making them and stacking the unused ones up to last nearly forever.

We even have a sharp eye out, increasingly, for our rain forests, in our water-scarce nation, evicting squatters from water towers, banning charcoal making that reduces our tree cover, setting targets for reforestation: alert now to the way forests capture water into our water table and generate springs, rivers, lakes and the water for all our boreholes.

And yet we sit with one truly massive area of unsustainability that we dare not speak. For many of our people run livelihoods that are literally the antithesis of sustainability.

So no one will say it, but let me: pastoralist populations in our northern counties have nearly doubled in the last decade. The livestock they own has grown faster still. But the model of pastoralism nowhere looks after or cultivates resources: the principle is to move in, eat until it’s all eaten, move onto somewhere else and eat all.

Now that was perfect for a slender population that could then allow the over-grazed pasture to ‘regenerate’, which, as a matter of fact, takes years. But our northern lands have seen swathes of pasture lost to invasive species, both indigenous and alien (from Asia, western Africa, or South America).

Temperatures have risen and droughts have become more frequent and more prolonged – partly as a result of climate change, but also partly because of the now comprehensive and widespread overgrazing and destruction of water towers.

Much of our north, indeed, is becoming desertified, in a horrible drift from semi-arid to arid, of our own ‘unsustainable’ making. And then, we of Nairobi and the centre and the west and the coast with our rich farms and our sense of distance look on and say, ‘oh look at those pastoralists and how they fight over land, but they always do it, so there it is’, as our nation steadily, incrementally, and sometimes irretrievably turns into desert.

And never let us speak the words that acknowledge, ‘beyond banning charcoal, we really need to open a huge national discourse about what we can do to create sustainable pastoralism’.

For even our farms and hydropower won’t go far once the land to the north is fully desertified, and once those hundreds of thousands of cattle have all fully eaten their way down to and through the road verges of our capital city.

Do we cap cattle ownership? Do we find and develop new and different income options? What’s our responsible grazing policy? Where’s the sustainability we can build in before our north is a civil war and millions are suffering from no way back?

Sustainability means balancing our present consumption against our future consumption. It means not over-fishing, not over-grazing, and managing our resources, all of us, and not everyone except those it’s socially unacceptable to say need to manage resources too. Without sustainability, we get destroyed, and that feeds no one at all.