Recasting “land-use conflicts” involving pastoralists


Largely single-cause explanations of land-use conflicts among pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, herders and farmers have been as common as they have been discredited. It was because of inter-ethnic competition; because of population increase; because of rival militarizations; because of the climate emergency. I want to suggest, though, that even the more nuanced, multi-causal explanations can be pushed and pulled further.

In particular, I’m not sure that “conflict” clarifies better pastoralist policy and development after a point. In no way should the following be construed as criticism of those writing on land-use conflicts. I suggest that there may be a different way of interpreting what is going on, and if there is, then there may be other ways even better to rethink the policy issues involved.

To what follows, I use two lenses from my 2020 STEPS paper, A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure.


The first is the logic of requisite variety. Complex environments require complex means of adaptation. If inputs are highly variable, so too must be the processes and options to transform this input variability into outputs and outcomes with low and stable variance, in our case, sustained herder livelihoods (or off-take, or herd size, or composition. . .).

One major implication of the principle of requisite variety is that “land-use conflict” has to be differentiated from the get-go. To be specific, references to pastoralist raids, skirmishes and flare-ups that do not identify “with-respect-to” what inputs, processes or outputs are misleading.

Consider a livestock raid of one pastoralist group on another. It’s part of the input variability of the latter group but also part of the process options of the former (e.g, when periodic raids are treated as one means to respond to unpredictable input shocks, like sudden herd die-offs). By way of contrast, some discussions of jihadist raids by young pastoralist men in the Sahel seems to reflect the changing composition and level of variance around the outputs and outcomes (as if there was something like “young-men pastoralism.” whose outputs had been changed by or with jihadism).

It also matters for pastoralist policy just what are the process options of the pastoralist group being raided. Do the responses include that of a counter-raid, or send more household members out of harms way from the area, or form alliances with other groups, or seek a political accommodation, or undertake something altogether different or unexpected? For the purposes of policy and management, a livestock raid (or such) is more than a livestock raid.


The second lens to refocus land-use conflicts is the entire cycle of infrastructure operations (I make the argument of pastoralism-as-infrastructure elsewhere in this blog and in the STEPS paper).

Infrastructures have normal operations, which are decidedly NOT invariant operations; “normal” includes fluctuations and adjustments in livestock service provision, so as to accommodate the impacts of inevitable contingencies. Also normal operations include periods of asset maintenance and repair, routine and non-routine.

At times, however, operations–that continuous supply of system services–are disrupted: A disruption is a temporary loss of service that requires restoration efforts so as to return to normal level. If restoration fails, the entire system could trip over into failure, if not for other reasons as well. Outright system failure is defined here as indefinite loss of system services and destruction of assets.

In the face of such failure, immediate response efforts are triggered (e.g., search and rescue efforts). These are presumably followed by longer term recovery operations to a new normal. Nothing is inevitable or guaranteed in one stage following another, including realization of a new normal after systemwide recovery.

So what? Different stages of pastoralist system operations also necessarily differentiate “land-use conflict.” A livestock raid undertaken by one pastoralist group on another in order to restore its herd numbers/composition differs from the livestock raid undertaken as an immediate emergency response to having the herd disappear because of some systemwide calamity.

As for those jihadist inspired and supported raids by young pastoralist men, it’s important to determine if those raids are best understood as recovery efforts to a new normal (recovery of a failed system is much more inter-organizationally demanding–think conventional humanitarian aid during droughts–than service restoration after a temporary disruption by the system on its own). Much of the current literature on the plight of pastoralists seems as well to be equating recurring pastoralist recoveries after failures as if it were the new normal.


Again: So what? As with the logic of requisite variety, a whole-cycle framework requires those involved in pastoralist policy and management to first differentiate cases of “land-use conflict” before proposing or adopting policy interventions. It isn’t merely about that old nostrum: Conflict can be productive, not destructive. Rather, land-use conflicts are fundamentally different cases of different lands, different uses and different conflicts.

This is especially true if one takes a long-term perspective on pastoralist systems and their evolution. A “conflict” going on for 30 years or more is obviously one that pushes and pulls to center-stage both the full cycle of pastoralist operations across time and the logic of requisite variety at any point in time for transforming input variability into sustained (though over time changing) outputs and outcomes.

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