Probes and proposals for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists 2026

When was the last time you heard pastoralist livestock exports from the arid and semi-arid regions of the world being praised for this: Reducing the global budget for virtual water trading from what it could have been?

And yet, that is exactly what pastoralism as a global infrastructure does.

The remittance-sending household member is no more at the geographical periphery of a network whose center is an African rangeland than was Prince von Metternich in the center of Europe, when the Austrian diplomat reportedly said, “Asia begins at the Landstraße” (the district outskirts of Vienna closest to the Balkans).

You can stipulate Asia begins here and Africa ends there, but good luck in making that stick for policies!

Philanthropy needn’t be viewed as the city’s rich helping the city’s poor; urban-generated remittances needn’t be seen as one set of family members helping other family members elsewhere.

Both philanthropy and remittances become something else when it’s “urban citizenship”–its duties and responsibilities–that come into better view through these very transactions.

It isn’t just that pastoralist households have off-site activities with household members elsewhere who contribute from there to on-site pastoralist activities.

Rather: It’s more appropriate to say that some pastoralisms are done off-site, just as what was once platform trading on the floor of a stock exchange is now done elsewhere on different platforms, as now with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Start with the EU’s Emission Trading System for CO2 emission credits. Imagine member/non-member states and companies are now able to enter the ETS to buy credits directed to offsetting GHG emissions in dryland localities committed to transitioning to environmentally friendly production systems and livelihoods based in or around livestock.

Start with the European COVID-19 initiative, NextGenerationEU (issuance of joint debt by EU member states to fund pandemic recovery). Imagine employee support schemes under this or some such initiative, with one aim being to augment remittances of resident migrants back to dryland household members and communities.

Stay with those resident migrants sending back remittances. Imagine other EU-financed schemes to improve the greening of EU localities heavily resident with migrants (e.g. subsidies to EU residents for more sustainable lifestyles in the EU). Think of this as a form of “reversed green extractivism,” in this case on behalf of dryland households by EU member states for EU-migrant communities.

Now extend this kind of thinking to the likes of G7 and many OECD countries.

A more traditional configuration of dryland herds as assets is being recast into a newer configuration of herds as global environmental liabilities. One consequence is to exclude pastoralists from being considered part of the near-global asset boom in rising prices of stock, bonds and real-estate.

Who benefits when policy attention is distracted by reclassifying cattle as global environmental liabilities from recognizing instead that their owners/managers were and continue to be entrapped in capitalist asset bubbles, and on a global scale?

I want to suggest that applicability of pastoralist strategies/perspectives/approaches now extends to richer-country settings because the goalposts for poverty reduction—not necessarily, for inequality—have changed and are changing.

More formally, the relatively-poor in both poorer and in richer nations remain, but they are becoming “closer-alike” in their respective precarities. This is happening—again, it’s a hypothesis—even as inequality within countries (intra-national) persists or is increasing.

Where so, I’m suggesting that some—not all or only—pastoralists may be better able than ever before to have something to say to others—some but not all—who have never been as precarious as now—whatever the absolute differences between the two groups in terms of surviving their respect inequalities.

If sustainable growth is defined as increasing human opportunities to unpredictable variability, then of course markets and commercialization have a role in pastoralist development. Having more income is one very important way really-existing humans know to increase opportunities. The issue is: how much a role and, as we all also know, the devil is in the details of these scenarios.

Cross-loading is the mutual influence of pastoralist household members and close relations with each other, separate from those governed by state policies and regulations. Cross-loading captures better the sense of pastoralists looking sideways to each other and reacting, where each is co-present and their relations co-constitutive.

This does not deny that the pastoralists adapt their behavior to state policies and regulations (so-called “downloading” through formal hierarchies) nor does it deny that pastoralists seek to project their own views onto and thereby influence state policies and regulations (so-called “uploading”).

Uploading and downloading may have their own (more vertical) networks, separate from or overlapping with those for (more horizontal) networks. Cross-loading is very much more a “multilateral” platform than center-periphery networks (with hubs and outposts).

Globalization, marketization and commodification have indeed set into play path dependencies for pastoralist development. But do these answer the crucial real-time question of concern to pastoralists, namely: What happens next?

In effect, the only answer to What-Happens-Next in path dependencies is: well, continued path dependence.

What’s missing is a granularity in answers that can be acted upon. If anything, all those appeals to globalization, marketization, commodification together end up degranularizing when just the opposite is needed. How is it that differentiated pastoralist behavior is best represented as dead-end coping, differentiated pastoralist landscapes are best represented as depastoralized, differentiated livelihood strategies are best represented as vulnerabilities all, and differentiated herders are best represented as poor and not-equal?

Much has been made of the declining share of labor relative to capital in the incomes of advanced economies over the last decades. More, wages and productivity have become increasingly decoupled, i.e., a good deal of productivity’s contribution has shifted to capital’s share. These changes are often attributed to labor-substituting (“labor-saving”) technologies via the spread of neoliberal globalization.

Pastoralist systems are of course part of that globalization, but have the technologies been more labor-augmenting (“labor-intensive”), at least in some systems? All the lorries ferrying livestock and supplies, all the cellphones used in real time (not just for price-and-market monitoring but for mediating inter-group conflicts as well)—have they advanced labor’s share relative to capital in pastoralist incomes, broadly writ? Yes, the costs of production are shifting through these innovations, but to the disadvantage of labor in all or even most cases?

The key problem in my view with the notion of “rangeland carrying capacity” is the assumption that it’s about livestock. The notion wants you to conjure up livestock shoulder-to-shoulder on a piece of land and then ask you: How could this not be a physical limit on the number of livestock per unit of land? You can’t pack anymore on it and that has to be a capacity constraint. Right?

Wrong. Livestock numbers on a piece of land are not a system. Yes, livestock systems that provide continuous and important services (like meat, milk, wool. . .) also have limits. But these limits are set by managing physical constraints, be it LSU/ha or not. More, this management combines with managing other constraints like access to markets, remittances for household members abroad, nearby land encroachment, and much else.

Can herders make management mistakes? Of course. That is why pastoralists-to-pastoralists learning is so important.

From this perspective, it’s not “rangeland carrying capacity” we should be talking about, but “rangeland management capacity”. Or better yet, “rangeland management capacities,” as there is not just one major type of pastoralism, but many different pastoralist systems of production and provision of livestock-related services.

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