These days, international conferences are often held at convention centers or luxury hotels at resort locations. But this past January, a very different world gathering took place along a dry riverbed in southern Ethiopia. Participants slept under the stars and talked about their place in an ever-changing world. The story of the first Global Pastoralist Gathering is the subject of a new book.
The book is entitled, Rain, Prosperity and Peace. Familiar words to any pastoralist, according to Patta Scott-Villiers, one of the organizers of the event.
"That comes from a saying that you hear. You certainly hear it all over Africa. And I reckon you probably hear versions of it amongst pastoralists all over the world. It’s a blessing and a wish that pastoralists will speak of perhaps at the end of a gathering," she says.
Ms. Scott-Villiers is a member of the Pastoralist Communication Initiative and works for the Institute of Development Studies in Britain.
She says, "They will say these are the things that we want. Rain implying a kind of, you know, bountiful environment. Prosperity implying an ability to look after all your children and all your community well. And peace the foundation of everything, which is not just that there’s no violence, but also that there’s good government and that everybody is getting on very well."
About 200 pastoralists from 23 countries met at Turmi, about one thousand kilometers south of Addis Ababa.
"Some of them had the most incredible journeys. Like we had groups coming from Mongolia, who had to travel for three weeks through snow and ice just to get to their capital city to then get on a plane where they then had to change maybe twice before they reached Addis Ababa. And then on they went down on another plane down towards the south of Ethiopia, then on a bus for practically the whole day until they got to the place where the meeting was held," she says.
They were kindred spirits from different cultures wanting to share thoughts and ideas. And it didn’t take them long to do so.
"Pastoralists have this way, which seems to stretch right across the world, of greeting one other, asking each other questions like who are you, how are you, how’s your family, tell me about your animals. And within that time they become really quite friendly with one another. So it was a very quick and extraordinary thing to watch," she says.
It’s estimated there are 200 million pastoralists in the world. But, Ms. Scott-Villiers says, they are often ignored. Living on the edges of modern society, their way of life is in jeopardy. Yet, their contributions are great.
"What they do is they produce huge amounts of livestock, which feed a large number of people, not just themselves. They are feeding all the cities of the countries in which they work. They’re looking after the environment. They also have the most, in many cases, very kind of well organized social systems and so on, which are very impressive from which people could learn," she says.
Despite their contributions, pastoralists often lack access to a good education, proper health care or even clean water.
Ms. Scott-Villiers says the Pastoralists at the gathering agreed on three major issues that need to be addressed.
"One of them was political rights, the fact that they exist as important and useful people on the planet. The second one was this question of market and production. That they produce well and they want to be supported to do that; and they want to be allowed to sell their products all over the world. And the third one was their area of problems. That they do get very much ignored. And they would like support to resolve their own problems," she says.
It’s expected to be several years before another Global Pastoralist Gathering is held. In the meantime, the pastoralists have asked that regional gatherings be arranged.
The gathering in Ethiopia was a joint effort involving the United Nations, the Institute for Development Studies, the IDS, and the British Government. The book about the event – Rain, Prosperity and Peace – is a series of articles describing the lives of the 200 pastoralists and published by the IDS.