KISERIAN, KENYA— Pastoralist communities around the world often live at the margins of modern day states, but pastoralist leaders maintain that their traditional livelihoods are economically viable and environmentally sustainable. A recent international conference of pastoralists in rural Kenya offered a unique opportunity for pastoralists to gather and learn.
Pastoralism, a predominantly nomadic lifestyle centered on livestock herding, is under threat. To chart a way forward, more than 100 pastoralists from Sudan to Spain attended a Global Gathering of Pastoralists in Kiserian, Kenya.
Jonathan Davies, coordinator of the Global Drylands Initiative, helped organize the event.
"By bringing people from the most unlikely places together you discover that there is a lot of common ground and a lot of opportunity for sharing of experiences and expertise," said Davies.
Pastoralist communities normally live in geographic peripheries, far from the reach of central governments.
They often are painted as anti-government and conflict-prone, but Davies claims this reputation is undeserved.
"Pastoralism is on a third of the land surface on this planet and the vast majority of it is self-policing and it is pretty peaceful. The conflicts are terrible but it is the exception, not the norm," said Davies.
Davies also said that the pastoralist land use system contributes to biodiversity and is environmentally sustainable, a point that was reinforced when conference attendees visited a biofuel processing plant.
Khalid Khawaldeh, who represents pastoral communities around Dana, Jordan, is among those who attended the conference and learned something new.
"The engineer just told us that we benefit from the waste more than from the meat. This is surprising for me," said Khawaldeh.
Like many at the conference, economic and political pressures forced Khawaldeh out of pastoralism.
"They cannot move outside the boundaries of Jordan. Even within Jordan they are in isolated islands because of privatization, industrialization, and conservation. So they cannot move as they used to," said Khawaldeh.
The World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous People aims to set a global agenda to protect pastoralist rights.
Lalji Desai, the group's secretary-general, points out that many pastoral groups face the same issues.
"Most of the pastoralists in the regions, we have similar problems linked with the policy-making and decision-making process. Recognizing our rights, land rights issues, migratory routes, markets, preserving our animal genetic resources, or our knowledge - everything is linked with the policy-making decision," said Desai.
Ol-Johán Sikku, from the Sami community of reindeer herders in northern Sweden, noted that some pastoral groups, including the Sami, find support lacking.
"Still locally, regionally, or in the country you have to do something. But if you get support from the U.N., that's good. Because even the Sami people, we feel that the northern Scandinavian countries don't support the Sami so we have to have support from the U.N., EU and then we can do something," said Sikku.
Sikku is trying to protect his ancient lifestyle by adapting to modern realities. He lobbies the Swedish government for Sami rights and works with a group called Slow Food Sápmi that promotes traditional Sami recipes to find new markets for his reindeer meat.