Pastoralism as a global infrastructure


If you think stabilization and expansion of herder outputs and outcomes–in particular household livelihoods–are central to pastoralism, then there are varieties of pastoralism. This is largely because efforts to achieve stable and expanding livelihoods vary with the critical infrastructures upon which they depend for their livestock.

Some pastoralisms depend on roads for herd transport. Others rely from time to time on helicopters. Veterinary health infrastructures have also been instrumental in various ways and it’s a commonplace to say pastoralists depend upon and configure around diverse market infrastructures differently. Migration infrastructure for those leaving their herder households and remittance infrastructures for the migrants to send income back to those households are as well patently various as they are patently evident.

I could go on, but the gist remains: Critical infrastructures do not just empirically affect pastoralist behavior; pastoralism are majorly defined through their different reliances on them.

–I’ve tried, however, to go further and make the case the varieties of pastoralism themselves should be seen a global infrastructure:

[P]astoralist systems are, in respects that matter, infrastructural; and since pastoralists and their systems are found worldwide, so too is pastoralism a global infrastructure, and importantly so. . .Pastoralist systems tender the world a key critical service (and have been doing so for a very long time): they, like other globalised/globalising infrastructures, seek to increase process variance in the face of high input variance to achieve low and stable output variance. More, they do so by managing non-measurable uncertainties well beyond the capabilities of formal risk methodologies and in the face of increasing and diversified input variabilities while still facing demands for sustained livelihoods. In this counternarrative, that key service is best understood as foundational to the world economy in times of great uncertainty and complexity.

To put the point formally: As with other major globalized or globalizing infrastructures, pastoralist systems seek to increase real-time management strategies and options in the face of often unpredictable or uncontrollable inputs so as to achieve low and stable outputs or outcomes nonetheless. Task demands are to be matched, at least in real time, by resource capabilities, which if the match occurs demonstrates requisite variety (i.e., the principle that in complex environments it takes varied resources to manage varied task demands).


There’s an extension that I’ve been reluctant to set out, because the point can be misinterpreted as agreeing with those who see pastoralism-in-CRISIS–that is, under attack and disappearing. Of course, such must be happening in some places (there being so many pastoralists globally and at so many different sites). But I do not see how any declension narrative can take center-place as the starting point in a varieties of pastoralism perspective.

–To see why, think of an infrastructure’s operations across an entire cycle: normal operations (fluctuations within formal or informal bandwidths), disrupted operations (temporary loss of system services), failed operations (indefinite loss of service along with destruction of assets), and response & recovery operations to a new normal (if there is to be one). Just as disrupted operations entail timely but not always successful restoration efforts back to normal operations, failed operations entail immediate emergency responses directed to longer-term system recovery (no guarantees here as well).

Yet here is the pastoralist literature with which I am familiar often describing systems that have failed and disappeared or are failing and threatened with more or less extinction. In contrast, from a pastoralism-as-infrastructure perspective, to end an infrastructure’s cycle of operations at system failure is to stop too early and end up in exaggeration.

How so? When it comes to a large-scale infrastructure, you have to go from failure onto to describe follow-on emergency response, which can well include first steps for recovery (e.g., damage assessments and solicitation of longer-term aid). Emergency response is a really-existing phase of operations that requires analysis precisely because the infrastructure has not been stopped in its tracks.

(In case it needs saying, there are many fine-grained analyses of pastoralist systems under stress, but rarely–I stand to be corrected–within the frame of an infrastructure’s cycle of operations.)


So what?

Return to the infrastructures key to configuring varieties of pastoralism: the migration infrastructure, the veterinary health infrastructure, the road transport infrastructure, the water points infrastructure, the livestock market and communications infrastructures, the urban arrival (employment) infrastructures for migrants from herder households, and the infrastructure for–well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?

From the perspective of pastoralism-as-infrastructure however, the preceding separate infrastructures are part and parcel of the process variance (the requisite variety) of those varieties of pastoralism. Segments of these specific infrastructures are activated or relied upon differently and at different points in the whole cycle of pastoralist operations.

Yes, critical infrastructures that underlie pastoralisms are under threat and in some cases the physical systems are very fragile or already extinct. But pastoralisms, from this infrastructure perspective, don’t wither away unless their process variance withers. This is to ask: What about the other empirically demonstrated ways to graze, herd, be im/mobile, or “be in the market,” case by case? This is not optimism or an eternal promise of requisite variety. It is being realistic.

–Again, so what? Three quick points follow from the infrastructure perspective:

First, if it is the entire cycle of pastoralist operations that is our point of departure, we should be able to investigate how routine and non-routine repairs are undertaken as part of normal operations. However, when was the last time you read about “repairing this or that pastoralist system or subsystem”? In this view, remittances back to the herder household provide the means to add management options at the site, but they also seek to repair dryland (sub-)systems that have lost labor and expertise.

Second, the infrastructure perspective suggests that instead of talking about environmental risks associated with pastoralisms (e.g., the climate risks of land degradation and methane production), we should be comparing the environmental footprints produced by the respective global infrastructures (e.g., roads globally, electricity globally, dams globally, and so on). Obviously, because pastoralisms rely on these other infrastructures, the respective footprints overlap. But the physical damage done to the environment by roads, dams, and power plants are well documented and extend far beyond pastoralist usage.

Third, much is rightly being made about the global financialization of important livelihood sectors, such as agriculture. A. major part of the critique is that increased financial flows are being diverted from the real economy investments for productive sectors into a myriad of financialized investment instruments (thereby adding to wealth disparities), e.g.,

Since the 2000s, although low US interest rates combined with no (or minimal) capital controls have dramatically increased short-term capital inflows into developing and emerging countries, this has not been channelled into productive real sector investments. Instead, these inflows have gone mainly into financial investments, which although profitable in the short term, do not necessarily increase long-run productive capacity.

Dafe, F., S. B. Hager, N. Naqvi, and L. Wansleben (2022)

That said, some of the investments must have been in productive sectors and indeed into livestock and mixed livelihood production in drylands (at least if the level of analysis is truly global). How much has been invested in “long-run productive capacity” is less the issue than that pastoralisms are themselves the infrastructure without which there would be no “real economy” there. In this way, wealth disparities created in the real economy must be differentiated from wealth disparities created through the accumulation of financial capital, right?

To sum up, my argument is that pastoralism-as-infrastructure is no more withering away than–as long prophesied–the state has withered away in the last century and half.

Related sources

Collins, F.L. (2021). “Geographies of migration I: Platform migration.” Progress in Human Geography 45(4): 866–877

F. Dafe, S. B. Hager, N. Naqvi, and L. Wansleben (2022). “The structural power of finance meets financialization” in Special Issue of Politics & Society (accessed online on September 7 2022 at

Dafermos, Y., D. Gabor, M. Nikolaidi, and F. van Lerven (2022). “Greening collateral frameworks.” Policy Briefing Paper 07 in the INSPIRE Sustainable Central Banking Toolbox, The International Network for Sustainable Financial Policy Insights, Research, and Exchange (INSPIRE),

D’Angelo, A. (2021). “The networked refugee: The role of transnational networks in the journeys across the Mediterranean.” Global Networks 1–13

Doorn, van N. and D. Vijay (2021). “Gig work as migrant work: The platformization of migration infrastructure.” EPA: Economy and Space: 1-21

Konaka, S. (2021). “Reconsidering the Resilience of Pastoralism from the Perspective of Reliability: The Case of Conflicts between the Samburu and the Pokot of Kenya, 2004-2009.” Nomadic Peoples, 25(2): 253-277

Krätli, S. and C. Toulmin (2020). Farmer-Herder Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa? IIED, London

Roe, E. (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK

Schapendonk, J. (2021). “Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe.” International Migration: 1 – 14  DOI:10.1111/imig.12923

Xiang, B. and J. Lindquist (2014). “Migration infrastructure.” International Migration Review 48(1): S122–S148

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