Seven examples of the value-added by “thinking infrastructurally” about pastoralism and pastoralists

             I dislike being herded into certainty.

                  Louise Glück, Nobel poet

1. 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.

The list continues, 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 make the case the variety of pastoralisms themselves should be seen a global infrastructure:

pastoralist 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.

I need to unpack that paragraph before drawing out what I take to be a new implication for pastoralisms-as-infrastructure.

Start with a common definition of critical infrastructures: Large sociotechnical systems deemed essential for the provision of vital societal services, which conventionally include, but are not limited to, large-scale systems for water, electricity, and transportation.

Pastoralist systems also share, I argue in my paper, a number of specific features that characterize large-scale critical infrastructures–not least of which is the role, practices and processes of real-time operators in managing for system-wide reliability and safety. Reliability professionals are also to be found—centrally so, I argue—in pastoralist systems. As pastoralist systems are found across the world, it is appropriate to view pastoralisms in aggregate as a global infrastructure with its own reliability professionals.

To put the point formally: As with other major globalized or globalizing infrastructures, pastoralist systems seek to increase process variance—think, real-time management strategies and options—in the face of high but unpredictable or uncontrollable input variance so as to achieve low and stable output variance. Task demands are to be matched, at least in real time, by resource capabilities, which if the match occurs is called requisite variety.

(It might help those initially reluctant to think of pastoralism as an infrastructure to know that the US government, among other governments as well, also fails to acknowledge space systems, notwithstanding their telecommunications and navigational [GPS] infrastructure components, as a separate critical infrastructure sector.)


With that in mind, now 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? Two 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.

To sum up, the 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.

2. Resilience is a plural noun

The topic here is herders of livestock primarily in the African rangelands. Below are two different redescriptions of herders and their systems: it’s resiliencies, not just resilience; and disasters-averted need to be far more recognized and capitalized on.


The opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back. But is that true? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think: “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

We observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of system operations:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or de facto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies undertaken by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether the large sociotechnical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to anything like individual “resilient” herders, though such herders exist.


So what when it comes to pastoralists?

What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you, the outsider, can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary these days, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

To return to Table 1, herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure. Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for, and reliably so. Shifting from one watering point, when an interfering problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, off-take of livestock products is interrupted, lightning triggers a veldt fire—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to alternative feed stocks or sources of livelihood may be required in the absence of grazing and watering fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and recovery from that failure. In these circumstances, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.


There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal (indeed the probability of system failure in recovery can be higher than in normal operations). It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from any new normal. To outsiders, it may look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, constantly trying to catch up with one drought or disaster after another. The reality may be that some systems—not all!—are already at a new normal, operating with a very different combination of options, strategies and resources than before.

If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, emergency response coordination and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

3. Disaster-averted is central to pastoralist development


My argument is that if crises averted by pastoralists were identified and more differentiated, we’d better understand how far short of a full picture is equating their real time to the chronic crises of inequality, market failure, precarity and such.

To ignore disasters-averted has an analogy with other infrastructure reliability professionals. It is to act as if the lives, assets and millions in wealth saved each day doesn’t matter when real-time control room operators of critical infrastructures prevent disasters from happening that would have happened otherwise. Why? Because we are told that ultimately what matters far more are the infrastructure disasters of modernization, late capitalism, and environmental collapse destructive of everything in their path.

Even where the latter is true, that truth must be pushed further to incorporate the importance of disasters-averted-now. Disaster averted matters to herders precisely because herders actively dread specific disasters, whatever the root causes.


Of course, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other related processes matter for pastoralists and others. The same for modernization, late capitalism, global environmental destruction, and the climate emergency. But they matter when differentiated and better specified in terms of their “with respect to.”

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case? Smallstock? Mechanized transportation? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or grazing conditions? How do the broader processes collapsed under “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

Most important, appeals to generalized processes or state conditions diminish the centrality of disasters averted through diverse actions of diverse herders. This diminishment leaves us assuming that marketization, commodification, precarity. . .are the chronic crises of real time for herder or farmer. They, we are to assume, take up most of the time that really matters to pastoralists.

But the latter is the case only if the with-respect-to scenarios demonstrate how these broad processes preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether. Without the empirical work showing that no disasters have been averted by pastoralists, the appeal to broad structural explanations begins to look less as a denial of human agency than the idealization of the absence of agency, irrespective of the facts on the ground.


Let me give an example. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports a finding in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” from his research in Georgia:

A community liaison officer, working for an oil company, introduced me to a villager who had managed to stop the movement of pipeline construction vehicles near her mountain village in the lesser Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline, she told us in conversation, would prevent her moving livestock between two areas of pastureland. Her protest, which was the first she had ever been involved in, was not recorded in any official or public documents.

Barry found this to be a surprising research event (his terms) and went on to explain at length (internal citations deleted) that

my conversation with the villager pointed to the importance of a localized problem, the impact of the pipeline on her livelihood and that of other villagers, and her consequent direct action, none of which is recorded or made public. This was one of many small, fragmentary indicators that alerted me to the prevalence and significance of direct action by villagers across Georgia in the period of pipeline construction, actions that were generally not accorded significance in published documents, and that were certainly not traceable on the internet. . .At the same time, the mediation of the Georgian company liaison officer who introduced me to the villager was one indicator of the complexity of the relations between the local population, the oil company, and the company’s subcontractors. . .

I believe the phrases, “managed to stop,” “would prevent her moving livestock,” “a localized problem,” “consequent direct action,” “generally not accorded significance,” and “the complexity of the relations” are the core to understanding that disasters-averted remain very real, even if not identified, let alone publicized, by outsiders preoccupied with what hasn’t been averted.

Should it need saying, some with-respect-to scenarios do specify how such phrases result from an ongoing interaction and dialectic between the wider processes and local particularities. I’d hope, though, you’d want to see details behind any such assertion first.


So what? How does the argued importance of disasters-averted compel rethinking pastoralist development? One example will have to suffice: the need to recast “pastoralist elites.”

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya. When I was there in the early 1980s, they were neither elderly nor elites all. I’m also pretty sure had I interviewed some of them at that time I’d have considered them “poor pastoralists.”

My question then: Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense familiar to the critics of elites? The answer is important because an over-arching development aim of the 1980s arid and semi-arid lands programs in Kenya was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My own answer to the preceding question would now focus on the disasters averted over time by pastoralists, both those who are today’s elites and those who aren’t. It seems to me essential to establish if equally (resource-) poor pastoralists nonetheless differentiated themselves over time in terms of how they averted disasters that would have befell them had they not managed the ways they did.

Now, of course, some of the poor pastoralists I met in the early 1980s may have been more advantaged than I realized. Of course, I could have been incorrect in identifying them as “poor pastoralists.” Even so, the refocusing on disasters-averted over time holds for those who were not advantaged then but are so now.

Which leads me to the question that should be obvious to any reader: Since when are researchers to decide that time stops sufficiently in a study period to certify who among herders are advantaged going forward, let alone what are the metrics for determining such? When did the development narrative become “poor herders and farmers must advance at the same rate or even faster than advantaged ones?”

4. Recasting “land-use conflicts” involving pastoralists


The great virtue of political ecology, in my view, has been to complexify narratives of scarcity-of-this-or-that-sort leads to land-use conflict. 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,” after a point, helps or aids better pastoralist policy and development. In no way should the following be construed as criticism of those writing on land-use conflicts nor is my contribution a justification for killing people. I suggest only 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 productively rethink the policy issues involved.

To that end, I use two lenses from the framework in my 2020 STEPS paper.


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 is that “land-use conflict” has to be differentiated from the get-go. By way of example, references to pastoralist raids, skirmishes and flare-ups that do not identify “with-respect-to” what inputs, processes or outputs are bound to be very misleading.

Consider a livestock raid of one pastoralist group on another. It’s part of the input variability of the latter group but it also part of the process options of the former (i.e., when periodic raids are treated as one means over the longer term to respond to unpredictable input shocks, like sudden herd die-offs). Indeed, some discussion 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).

So what?

It matters for pastoralist policy just what are the process options of the pastoralist group being raided. Do the response options include that of a counter-raid, or to send more household members away from the area, or to form alliances with other threatened groups, or to seek a political accommodation, or to 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. A livestock raid undertaken by one pastoralist group on another in order to repair or restore its herd numbers/composition differs from the livestock raid undertaken as an immediate emergency response to having the entire system of operations or 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—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 its new normal.


Again: So what?

As with the logic of requisite variety, the whole cycle 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.

5. Which “rangeland restoration”?


“Restore” is a very big word in infrastructure studies. It’s been applied to: (1) interrupted service provision restored back to normal infrastructure operations; (2) services initially restored after the massive failure of infrastructure assets; and (3) key equipment or facilities restored after a non-routine “outage” as part of regular maintenance and repair.

To be clear, what follows are overlapping examples, but good-enough for our purposes:

–An ice storm passes through, leading to a temporary closure of a section of the road system. Detours may or may not be possible until the affected roadways are restored. This is an example of #1.

–An earthquake hits, systemwide telecommunications fail outright big time, and mobile cell towers are brought in by way of immediate response to restore telecom services, at least initially. This is an example #2.

–A generator in a power plant trips offline. Repairs are undertaken, often involving manual, hands-on work so as to restore back on line. This kind of sudden outage happens all the time and is considered part of the electric utility’s standard-normal M&R (maintenance and repair). This is an example of #3.


Now think of “rangeland restoration” in these terms of 1 – 3, e.g.:

#1: Stall feeding, which is here part of normal operations, is restored after an unexpected interruption in its version of a supply chain. Trucking of water and livestock, which are also part of normal livestock operations there, are temporarily interrupted.

#2: Grasslands have been appropriated for other uses (the infamous agriculture), requiring indefinite use of alternative livestock feed and grazing until a more permanent solution is found.

#3: A grassland fire—lightning strikes are a common enough occurrence though unevenly distributed—takes part of the grasslands out of use, at least until (after) the next rains. Herders respond by reverting to more intensive alternative intensive grazing practices for what’s left to work with.


Now, here are two important implications:

First, rangeland equilibrium—and ecological disequilibrium for that matter—have nothing to do with these comparisons. The benchmark here is the normal operations of pastoralism as an infrastructure with respect to the use of pasture assets. Yes or no: Has routine stall feeding been restored back after an interruption in supply? This is pre-eminently the issue of infrastructure reliability, not range ecology (i.e., the former is an output matter, the latter more an input issue).

Second, the issue of overgrazing is often a sideshow distracting from what is actually going on infrastructurally. Because normal operations—remember, it’s the benchmark used here for comparisons—always has had overgrazing in its operations.

What, for example, do you think the sacrifice grazing around a livestock borehole is about? There is nothing to “restore” the immediate perimeter of this borehole back to. In fact, that “overgrazed perimeter” is an asset in normal operations of the livestock production and livelihood systems I have in mind.


So what?

As I read them, calls for “rangeland restoration” are a contradiction in infrastructure parlance, namely: “rangeland recovery back to an old normal.” Recovery in infrastructure terms is a massively complex, longer term, multi-stakeholder activity without any guarantees following on immediate emergency response to outright full system collapse.

6. Thinking infrastructurally about rangeland carrying capacity


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. The number of its pipes, rods and valves are not an operating nuclear power plant. 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.


There are other rangeland-related points that need stressing as well, including:

1. No large critical infrastructures can run 24/7/365 at 100% capacity and be reliable, and pastoralist systems are no different. This means comparing pastoralist livestock systems to some kind of “optimized” grassland ranching or intensive dairy production is ludicrous if only because the latter is more likely to headed to disaster anyway.

2. Indigenous populations and their land rights are now taken by progressives as an essential part of democratic struggles (and not just in the Americas). But where are pastoralists holding livestock and claiming their land rights in the literature on this indigeneity?

3. Restocking schemes are routinely criticized for returning livestock to low-resource rangelands (as perceived by the experts). Yet government commodity buffer stocks (e.g., holding grain, wool or oil in order to stabilize the prices of those commodities) are routinely recommended by the experts, decade after decade, be the countries low-resource or not.

4. We hear about the need to move infrastructure change away from powerful actors towards more inclusive low-carbon futures. But where is the focus on pastoralists already practicing such futures? We hear about the methane contributions of livestock to global warming, but what about the reverse climate risks associated with curtailing pastoralism and in doing so its pro-biodiversity advantages?

5. When was the last time you heard pastoralist livestock exports from the arid and semi-arid rangelands of the world being praised for reducing, considerably, 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.

7. Which inequalities and whose longer-term? Assetization in pastoralism as infrastructure


I believe that livestock production and wealth are very skewed in Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands (and elsewhere for that matter). I also believe that this livestock production can still be as if not m ore productive, while more equally distributed.

The argument for pastoralism-as-infrastructure, however, brings into focus under-acknowledged inequalities just as important. In ways explained below, these arise where infrastructures have long been treated as assets with future streams of benefits.

The following section reprises the pastoralism-as-infrastructure perspective. The section thereafter discusses assetization and specific implications regarding the wider inequalities. I end with answering the So What? question.

Pastoralism as infrastructure and initial implications


While vastly different technologically, the critical infrastructures with which I am familiar–water, energy, telecoms, transportation, hazardous liquids–share the same logic: The system’s real time operators seek to increase process variance (in terms of diverse options, resources, strategies) in the face of high input variance (including variability in factors of production and climate) to achieve low and stable output variance (electricity, water and telecoms provided safely and continuously).

This is the logic of requisite variety. Having a diversity of resource and strategic options, including being able to assemble, improvise or invent them, is a way to match and manage problem complexity so as to achieve by and large stable outputs.

I submit pastoralist systems are, in respect to this logic, infrastructural; and as pastoralists and their systems are found worldwide, so too is pastoralism a global infrastructure. To be sure, not all pastoralist systems share this logic; nor are all pastoralists real-time reliability professionals; nor do all pastoralist systems reduce to this logic, only.


If we focus on the set of pastoralist systems that share the logic, the implications for rethinking pastoralist development are, I believe, major. To pick four of the differences identified in earlier blogs:

1. The infrastructure perspective suggests that instead of talking about environmental risks associated with pastoralism (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. . .).

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 demonstrably extend well far beyond pastoralist usage.

2. No large critical infrastructures can run 24/7/365 at 100% capacity and be reliable, and pastoralist systems are no different. This means comparing pastoralist livestock systems to a benchmark of “optimized” grassland ranching or intensive dairy production is ludicrous if only because the latter are more likely to headed to disaster anyway.

3. Restocking schemes are routinely criticized for returning livestock to low-resource rangelands. Yet the infrastructure for government commodity buffer stocks (e.g., holding grain, wool or oil in order to stabilize the prices of those commodities) are routinely recommended by other experts, decade after decade, be the countries low-resource or not.

4. When was the last time you heard pastoralist livestock exports from the world’s arid and semi-arid regions 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.

Implications of assetizing pastoralism as infrastructure


Now let’s shift specifically to assetizing that infrastructure. Think of assets and assetization as follows:

An asset is both a resource and property, in that it generates income streams with its sale price based on the capitalization of those revenues. Although an asset’s income streams can be financially sliced up, aggregated, and speculated upon across highly diverse geographies, there still has to be something underpinning these financial operations. Something has to generate the income that a political economic actor can lay claim to through a property or other right, entailing a process of enclosure, rent extraction, property formation, and capitalization. . . .

Commodities are produced for sale, and as such their value is defined by the labour imbued in them as they are substitutable and subject to laws of competition. In resting on rent and enclosure without a particular orientation towards sale, assetization instead involves “the transformation of things into resources which generate income without a sale”. . . .

The market value of an asset depends on the estimated future rents it will afford, so for there to be a market for rent-bearing property the purchaser must borrow against future rent and capital gains. It is only after this capitalization that there is a viable market for tradable rent-bearing property and, therein, an asset.

As the above quote and its authors underscore, assetization is a more nuanced, meso-or-lower-level concept than are macro notions of commodification or marketization.

The treatment of livestock or water points or fencing or motorbikes or vet stocks or rangeland as assets has been an undeniable feature of pastoralism. We may debate the history of doing so. My view is that the path dependency with respect to assets-thinking originated in the division of labor in earlier pastoralist societies as commercial economies (think: trade routes and the early-on division between herd owners and herd holders). Whatever, the variety of capitalist economies has subsequently ramped up assetization diversity within pastoralist systems.


But the focus here is not on assetization within pastoralist systems. It is rather: Has pastoralism as a global infrastructure been assetized and if so, what are the inequalities this has generated in addition to within-system inequalities over owning or holding within-system assets?

More formally, has the logic of requisite variety with respect to input/process/output variability become a set of assets from which to realize profits and rents?


For example, the treatment of “human capital” all but ends up assetizing a rich process variance in pastoralism as infrastructure. You would have to be sycophants of economics or Bourdieu not to see that reification of real-time management of process variance into “investments” does a great disservice to meso- and micro-level differentiation of practices with respect to options, resources and strategies, especially their real time versions.

More specific examples are readily available. Consider the role of advances in telecommunications for pastoralist livestock systems. It is repeatedly documented that cellphones play an important role in real-time livestock marketing, among other activities. These technologies have integrated owners and herders further into markets. What has been less noted (though I stand to be corrected) is how assetization of those digital platforms for the telecoms affects other elements for achieving the end outcome, stable pastoralist livelihoods.

It’s easy to continue with such examples and questions, e.g., by returning to points #1 – #4 above and seeking to show ways in which assetization in those areas are underway. Notice, though, that the assets change in degree and kind from those assets commonly identified within-systems.

Livestock and water become “ecological footprints,” a very different asset. Grassland systems as assets are not one-to-one comparable to those in ranching schemes or the dairy sector. As for restocking schemes, it requires a different perspective to see them as part and parcel of commodity stock buffers. And yes, virtual water trading is assetized, but here too the assets in question differ considerably from those conventionally talked about in within-system pastoralisms.

So what?


I have no doubt that the assetization of pastoralism as infrastructure is full of power and income asymmetries. But how that all works out is, I believe, considerably under-investigated compared to the more documented literature on within-system power and income asymmetries among pastoralists.

It’s an empirical question about how unequal is within-system inequality. Given the millions and millions and millions of pastoralist households not just in Africa but elsewhere, what do more equal, productive household systems have to offer by way of lessons learned to those household systems less equal but just as productive, when nevertheless both sets of systems share similar problems of politics, money and egos?

So too, I believe, it an empirical issue, but a very much different one, when benchmarking the inequalities of assets at the level of pastoralism as its own global infrastructure. The benchmark here are other global or globalizing infrastructures qua infrastructures.


I want to conclude by suggesting that pastoralism as a global infrastructure resists assetization in ways that are, however, sharply criticized in conventional views about within-system pastoralist herds and households.

Start with the fact that the current literature on infrastructure assetization focuses on how schools, health facilities, police and large infrastructure projects are assetized for the purposes of securing specific rents and profits over time. Critics understandably see these developments in negative terms.

If so, why then are persistent failures and difficulties in establishing–read: assetizing–fixed-point pastoralist schools, permanent health facilities, zones free of armed conflict, and viable large livestock development projects treated in overwhelmingly negative terms by like-minded critics?

Or to put the point from another direction: By viewing pastoralism as infrastructure, do we see a longer-term at work than we would be the case, were its assets financialized by sudden changes in exchange rates and interest rates?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s