What Tragedy? Whose Commons?

Pastoralist PR is dreadful. In the classic cautionary tale, communal land ownership inevitably leads to overgrazing. But maybe the story’s got it wrong. 

By Fred Pearce

Mohammed is a modern Bedouin from the Badia, the arid “outback” of eastern Jordan. He exchanged his camels years ago for a truck and a big motorized water tanker. For much of the year, he lives a sedentary life in his village in the Tafila district in southern Jordan. He keeps his sheep close by, nourished on subsidized feed. But in spring, he phones his friends to discover where the rains have fallen and the grass is lush, then loads his flock into trucks, fills his water tanker, and heads for distant pastures. This part-time nomadism is at the center of a debate that could determine the future of both the Bedouin and the Badia. And could help determine the fate of Mohammed’s fellow pastoralists worldwide.

A generation ago, the Bedouin and their camels roamed the deserts of the Middle East. It wasn’t a free-for-all. Rights of ownership and access were tightly negotiated and policed, but without fences, formal laws, or national boundaries. Mohammed’s forefathers, members of the Anizzah tribe, traveled between the River Jordan and the Euphrates, 600 miles across the desert, and south into Arabia. They lived a largely self-contained, nomadic existence. Today, they are stuck behind the national boundaries of Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The camels are disappearing. In the northern Badia, less than one percent of households owns camels, once a sign of nobility among the Bedouin. But 99 percent own sheep, which they rear for the cash that their meat, wool, and milk will earn.

The Bedouin are settling down to a less noble, but more profitable, existence. Most have a family home in a village. Their children go to school and take jobs in business or government. Only a minority of households now depends on livestock for their main income, and many hire others to look after their flocks for much of the year. Even so, a quarter of families in the Badia still migrate hundreds of miles each year to find grazing pastures. Though Mohammed can no longer pass unhindered into neighboring countries, his sheep can. Many Bedouin sell their animals across the border for a season to a fellow tribe member and then buy them back later.

The Badia, the backyard of Jordan, remains the country’s main region for livestock production. But the contrast between the old life and the new is often bizarre. Desert tents made of exquisite woolen fabric are patched with old fertilizer bags. Trucks bump across the Badia delivering barrels of water. Shepherds follow their flocks on donkeys before driving into Safawi, a truck stop on the road to Iraq, to hear the latest gossip. Farmers, new settlements, roads, and other infrastructure are all invading the pastures. In the villages, vegetables grow under plastic. The Badia has become a market garden for Amman, and for export.

The Jordanian government would like more permanent settlements and more farmers. Many claim that people like Mohammed are overgrazing the pastures, destroying the fragile grasslands and creating new desert. But the evidence for permanent ecological decline is scant. Many ecologists say the Badia is alive and well in the hands of the Bedouin, and that it is the development plans that could destroy it. If true, that leaves Mohammed, with his feedlots and his phone calls, as the unlikely ecological hero of the Badia. Jordan’s seminomadic shepherds may just turn out to be the wise men.

The story of the Badia is being played out across the world. Pastoralists often flourish where they are allowed to do so. The world has hundreds of millions of them, and probably another billion people who combine farming with keeping livestock that graze on common pastures. By some estimates, they occupy 45 percent of the planet’s land surface—approaching four times more than farmers who till the soil.

pull quote2 What Tragedy? Whose Commons?The grass may not always be green, but the pastures are certainly productive. The livestock of Mongolia are responsible for a third of that country’s GDP. In Morocco they deliver 25 percent. In Sudan and Senegal, 80 percent of agricultural productivity comes from pastures. The herds of alpaca, vicuña, llama, and guanaco in the Andes provide food, fuel, clothing, and transportation. Cashmere goats are moneymakers in Tibet. Cattle dung is the main fuel and fertilizer in rural India. Yaks feed millions in central Asia. The global market for camel milk is $10 billion. While minding their animals, pastoralists tend trees producing gum arabic that turns up in everything from Coca-Cola to paint; they harvest thousands of tons of medicinal plants and honey by the tanker-load; they escort desert tourists and guard wildlife. Oh, and they produce meat—the most popular foodstuff on Earth.

Pastoralism’s PR is dreadful. Stories of overgrazing and “desertification” spread around the world, often told by farmers who want the pastoralists’ land. Pastoralists are seen as the big villains in the environmentalists’ narrative of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the American ecologist Garrett Hardin posited that sharing the environment doesn’t work. According to Hardin, when there are common pastures, those with the most animals will make the most profit, while everyone, however many or few animals they have, will share in the suffering as the pasture is overgrazed. The only rational response is therefore to graze as many animals as you can till the pasture turns to dust. Remedy: privatize the lot. The tragedy of the commons is a land grabbers’ charter.

Nice theory; shame about the facts. First, herders have long traditions of collectively managing their pastures. Whatever it may look like to the outsider, there is no free-for-all. And second, ecologists now realize that reports of desertification are greatly exaggerated. In fact, in most places, cattle and other animals grazing the grasses and browsing the bush are, as a recent report from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put it, “vital for ecosystem health and productivity.” Far from wrecking the land, pastoralists and their animals have for thousands of years conserved biodiversity, held back the desert, stored carbon, and prevented erosion. Pastoralism is the best way of managing the fickle climate of the dry grasslands of Africa and elsewhere. If climate is going to be less reliable in the future, perhaps even drier, then the skills and knowledge of pastoralists will be of even greater value.

In places like the Badia, it is the spread of the plow—especially in the hands of outsiders—that is the real threat, both because it obliterates the natural grasslands and because it hems in cattle herders and shepherds. Pastoralists need to be as flexible as the ecosystem they inhabit. They need to react quickly to changing circumstances, altering the sizes of their herds and migrating to areas where the vegetation is best that year, unencumbered by rules of individual land ownership and unfettered by state boundaries.

Ethiopia is just one country where pastoralists are being systematically marginalized—demonized as environmental destroyers while their economic contribution goes largely unrecognized. Pastoralists make up a tenth of Ethiopia’s population and still occupy a third of its land, which they consider to be their ancestral territories. In return, they raise 40 percent of the country’s cattle, 75 percent of its goats, a quarter of its sheep, and all its camels. Leather production in Ethiopia, the country’s second-largest foreign-exchange earner, comes largely from pastoral herds on common land. But pastoralists are losing their land fast, to the plow and sometimes to misguided conservation schemes.

Take the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, with some 30 million members. Their main pastures east of the capital, Addis Ababa, have come under sustained attack. In 1961, the government fenced off 185,000 acres to create the Awash National Park. Then a Dutch company took over 37,000 acres to create the Metehara sugar estate. Big ranches moved in next, taking a further 84,000 acres. “The community, the original owners of the land, were not consulted when the land was illegally taken from them,” says Eyasu Elias of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Instead they are charged huge fees for their cattle to be allowed access to the ranches during extended drought.”

Most recently, in 2008, the Ethiopian government gave an Indian company, Chadha Agro, 54,000 acres to grow yet more sugar in Oromia, in return for Indian investment in a sugar refinery. The new sugar estate “took some of the best dry-season grazing areas along the Awash River,” says Elias. After armed protests from the Oromo, the Ethiopian government nationalized the farm and brought in soldiers to protect it.

pull quote1 What Tragedy? Whose Commons?Altogether, the Oromo have lost 60 percent of their land. As a result, they have been overgrazing some of their remaining pastures. And they have fought over land with the Afar people, who live on the other side of the Awash park. In despair, some are giving up their animals and switching to farming, charcoal burning, and smuggling. Others are heading for Addis, which is less than three hours away by bus. But not all. As I write this, Reuters is reporting that the Ethiopian police have arrested 29 people “for plotting to carry out bomb attacks.” All allegedly “had links with the Oromo Liberation Front, a secessionist group Addis Ababa blacklisted as terrorists last year.”

From Afghanistan to West Africa, the revenge of the pastoralists looks like it is becoming an important political issue. Go west from Oromia to Niger and Mali, and there are plenty of Tuareg tribesmen who have been progressively deprived of their pastures by farmers. Some have joined Al-Qaeda and begun kidnapping and murdering foreigners across the Sahel from Mauritania to Burkina Faso. In Mali, tourist trips to the fabled Dogon highlands effectively ended in 2011 due to kidnappings. Aid agencies I met in Mopti told me they had recently abandoned driving to Tombouctou because of armed carjackings. We can pay a heavy price for ignoring pastoralists.

To discuss all this, I flew to Kenya and met Liz Alden Wily in the Village Market. Despite its name, the Village Market is a giant shopping mall in northern Nairobi—the new Kenya masquerading as the old. The only Maasai people you will see here are selling trinkets in the shops. We drank coffee for hours as she discussed Africa, customary land rights, and the fate of pastoralists. Alden Wily is a political economist and land-reform expert in demand around the world. And she tells a story not often heard, about some of the world’s most marginalized and persecuted people. About people that even old Africa hands don’t often see—until perhaps they hit the headlines wielding a Kalashnikov or a rocket launcher.

Pastoralists, along with forest dwellers, occupy many of the planet’s surviving commons. Those who pursue their traditional lives mostly spend their time far from towns or even roads, ignoring national laws and even national boundaries. Most African politicians I have met were brought up in such places. But most of them have the zeal of newcomers to city life. They believe that the people of the commons are historical leftovers, wild people who need to be tamed and settled, brought within national laws and norms. For their good and for ours. They should shop in the Village Market, not a real village market.

Alden Wily calls this dangerous nonsense. Most places have commons. They vary in size from English village greens to the world’s largest rain forests. But only in Africa is most of the land in some form of common ownership. About four-fifths of the continent’s 6 billion acres is not formally owned by anyone other than the state. There is no legal title, but rural inhabitants regard it as theirs. As Alden Wily began one of her trenchant papers on the topic: “Whether recognized by statutory law or not, African rural communities consider themselves to be the traditional owners of not just their house plots and farms, but also the forests, pastures and other naturally collective resources which fall within their domains.”

pull quote3 What Tragedy? Whose Commons?That’s the rub. For what we are talking about is the land that the World Bank calls “the world’s last great reserve of underused land.” These are the supposedly empty plains of Africa that governments want to give to land grabbers in the cause of economic development. Again as I write, Mozambique has declared 15 million acres of this “empty” land open to foreign investors on 50-year leases at an annual rent of around $9 an acre, and 40 fellow Portuguese-speaking Brazilian soy farmers were about to go over and take a look.

But to equate uncultivated with unused or unowned is a bad mistake, says Alden Wily. “In fact, virtually every inch of the continent is owned under customary norms and used in accordance with custom, for shifting cultivation, grazing, hunting, wood and non-wood extraction or as spare land for expanding farming when needed.” Common lands are also where domesticated livestock and wildlife have coexisted for thousands of years. They are the conservationists’ “Pleistocene landscapes.”

Africa is the last great stronghold of the commons, though the customary rights they entail often exist in parallel with, or in defiance of, formal law. European colonists never accepted the commons, though they mostly left the pastoralists to their own devices. Post-independence African states either expunged the customary rights or overrode them by nationalizing the common pastures and forests in the name of socialism. Socialism is out of favor today. So the great sell-off has begun—in the name of economic development. Parcel it all out, and all will be well.

Alden Wily wants neither state control nor privatization. Instead she wants a renaissance for customary land tenure, by enshrining it in national laws. That is no panacea. As we saw in Ghana, tribal chiefs can be as venal as government ministers when a foreigner comes calling with a checkbook. But without some change to vest land rights in the community, she believes that most of the commons are doomed. “Half a billion Africans will remain tenants of a state that can perfectly legally sell or lease their farms and commons from beneath their feet.”

From Gambella to Mozambique, and South Sudan to Liberia, the great pastures and forests today are the only surviving places on the planet that “provide the scale of contiguous and intact estates sought by large-scale investors.” That is why they are under attack as never before. The current land rush, she says, “is a tipping point in the penetration of capital into agrarian societies.” We could be witnessing the beginning of the final enclosure of the world’s unfenced lands, and with it the “final extinction of customary land rights.”

It need not happen. In the rich world, some indigenous cultures in remote regions have beaten back the tide and successfully claimed their right to hold and manage large areas of land according to their own ways—whether the Inuit of Canada, the Sami of Scandinavia, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Native Americans on their reservations. Alden Wily will, she says, “not rest until the 4 billion hectares of customary land are legally entrenched in the hands of their rightful owners, the world’s 2 billion rural poor.”

Brave words. For hundreds of millions of people across the planet—including Mohammed with his water tanker in the Jordanian Badia—the results of her battle will define their lives and those of future generations. There are few more important issues for the twenty-first century than the fate of the world’s commons.

Fred Pearce is an author and journalist based in London. He has reported on environment, popular science, and development issues from 64 countries over the past 20 years. Currently the environment consultant of New Scientist magazine and a regular contributor to British newspapers, he is the author of more than 15 books, including The Climate Files, Peoplequake, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, When the Rivers Run Dry, and Deep Jungle.

This article is an edited excerpt from his book The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth (Beacon Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Photo ©Michael Fay/National Geographic Stock

apple world What Tragedy? Whose Commons?Use this article in the classroom:
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