Pastoralist landscapes and natural resources


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IMAGINE if a new law or a development policy classified home gardens – therefore your beloved garden too – as ‘natural resources’. Would you say that this is impossible because your garden is yours and the result of your work – hence not natural? Alright, but would not the definition of home gardens as natural resources effectively deny your role in making your garden the place it is and, ultimately, undermine your entitlement over it? However, engagement with pastoralist landscapes through a natural-resource-management framework is common in rural development, both amongst agencies representing the point of view of outsiders, and by local civil society organizations and pastoralism advocacy groups.

What are the implications in this case? Should this practice be seen as problematic and possibly alarming vis-à-vis a commitment to equity and the ‘do not harm principle’ in development? In order to explore answers to these questions, this essay recalls two contexts in which pastoralist landscapes are described through such ‘naturalizing’ lenses: the definition of pastoralism and the representation of local breeds. We then take a peek into the genealogy of the concept of natural resources. Finally, we look at the way pastoral systems interact with their environment.


Within the predominant tradition of defining pastoralism from a crop-farming perspective, the presence of cultivation has been seen as a trait of particular significance. Against this background, pastoral systems have been defined as making use of natural pasture, systems that ‘use the range-land, which is land carrying natural fodder’, or ‘grassland based’ systems, using ‘the world’s natural grassland regions’. This legacy include works from ILRI,1 Otte and Chilonda,2 Seré and Steinfeld,3 and Mitaru and Mwai,4 and can go as far as recognizing that in the regions used by pastoralism ‘environmentally stable balances of human society, animal population and vegetative biomass have existed for centuries’, all without stepping out of the axiom that these grasslands are natural. Scientific research on grasslands seems itself entrenched in a tradition of looking at these ecosystems primarily through botanical lenses, where even ruminants – the necessary co-evolutionary counterpart of grasses – are rarely part of the picture except as a disturbance, let alone livestock management.5

The second context concerns the way ‘local breeds’, including pastoral breeds, have been represented in the debate on domestic animal diversity. Although the emergence of breeds is recognized to be the result of human activity, their biological or genetic diversity is commonly described in terms of natural selection. When dealing with the notion of in-situ conservation for domesticated species, Art 15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity makes exception for the ‘natural habitats’ or ‘natural surroundings’, and uses the expression ‘in the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties’. Despite this recognition, Art 2 of the Convention categorizes domestic animal genetic resources as ‘natural resources’.6


The FAO’s Second Report on the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture explains that, ‘As a result of natural selection, livestock populations tend, over time, to acquire characteristics that facilitate their survival and reproduction in their respective production environments. In other words, they become adapted to local conditions.’ It is clear from the context that the statement refers especially to local breeds in developing countries: ‘Particularly in small-holder and pastoralist systems, animals… have to rely on their adaptive characteristics.’7

Common to mainstream definitions of pastoralism and local breeds is an approach to pastoralist landscapes as fundamentally distinct from pastoralism as pre-existing. In this view, livestock are a disturbance to a natural environment assumed to be essentially botanical; herders are a disturbance (or at best a redundancy) to a process of livestock adaptation assumed to be essentially natural (i.e. driven by natural selection). Both scientific contexts belong to the tradition of representing the world in terms of stable and relatively close systems, the ‘equilibrium thinking’ of classical ecology (i.e. pre-1970s),8 the roots of which have been traced back to Newton’s mechanics and Linnaeus’ economy of nature (for example by Chapman9 and Koerner10). The same tradition also gave birth to the notion of natural resources.


Natural resources are supposed to exist in nature without action of humankind. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines them as ‘industrial materials and capacities (as mineral deposits and waterpower) supplied by nature. Following the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and World Bank, OECD defines ‘natural resources’ as ‘natural assets (raw materials) occurring in nature that can be used for economic production or consumption.’11 Similarly, the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks of ‘stocks of materials that exist in the natural environment, that are both scarce and economically useful in production or consumption, either in their raw state or after a minimal amount of processing [...] natural resources […] are not created by human activity […] are tradable in markets.’12

Three basic characters are present in most definitions: (i) being ‘materials or substances’; (ii) not being the result of human activity; and (iii) being economically useful and tradable. Yet, this is quite a problematic combination. While the definitions of ‘natural resources’ emphasize the absence of human activity, definitions of ‘resource’ as such include humanity as a necessary condition: ‘a useful or valuable possession or quality of a country, organization, or person’ (Cambridge Dictionary); ‘a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively’ (Oxford Dictionary); ‘a supply of something (such as money) that someone has and can use when it is needed’ (Merriam-Webster). In all these cases, the term ‘resource’ describes not simply a thing but a relationship: something/of use/to someone.


A relationship is also implied in the emphasis on economic value and tradability, both attributes that presume an organized social context. As only human activity can construct ‘something’ into a resource or a commodity, for a ‘natural resource’ not being the result of human activity would seem quite out of the question. From Spoer’s pioneering work in this regard, it was evident that nothing in the environment becomes a ‘resource’ without human mediation: ‘cultural, technological and economic appraisals […] mobilized for particular social ends.’13 There is no ‘timber’ without human activity more than there is ‘pasture’, ‘beef’ or indeed ‘land’. As recorded by Sharma14 and Kula,15 in India (Gupta), land measurement in kulyavapa was based on units of seed grains (kulya) required to sow it, while for centuries agricultural land in Europe was measured based on units of man’s labour required to work it.

When natural resources are understood as relationships rather than things, the basic questions about them change from ‘what’ and ‘where’ to ‘whose’ (useful to whom?) and ‘how’ (useful to do what?). While things are given, relationships are constructed. The notion of natural resources as ‘things’ – what Bathelt and Glückler16 call the ‘substantive’ approach – locks the natural world onto a particular set of uses and users (Spoehr would say onto a particular ‘interpretation’ of natural resources).


On the other hand, as relationships, different resources can be constructed simultaneously by different users and for different uses from the same bit of the natural world. While ‘timber’ can only be timber and ‘land’ can only be land, the number of simultaneous resources into which a forest, a hill, or a stretch of rangeland can be constructed is virtually infinite. A landscape seen through a notion of ‘natural resources’ as relationships is therefore richer in diversity and potential value (and less prone to conflict from competition over resources) than the same landscape seen through ‘substantive’ lenses, as a given deposit of resources as ‘things’.


The notion of natural resources is so tightly linked with modern European history that questions about its origins are rarely asked even within disciplines such as natural resource economics or natural resource management. Although a systematic genealogy of the concept is missing, useful insights can be found in the growing body of research on the intertwined development of economics and ecology in the early modern period, especially from Linnaeus’ ‘Economy of Nature’ and the great transformation in the way of understanding ‘nature’ at the time of Newton, or the beginning of the so-called ‘modern era’, as well described in the works of Koerner17 and Descola18 and the collection edited by Schabas and De Marchi.19

From Cooper20 to Spary21 and Muller-Wille,22 works within this line of enquiry trace back the notion of ‘natural resources’ to the inventories of ‘natural riches’ produced by botanists and geologists from the late 17th century and early 18th century. Such works were critical for the ruling class in Germany, France and England, eager to take advantage of new opportunities from the boost in commercial and manufacturing activities. Rajan has shown how modern German forestry developed ways of representing the variability and complexity of real forests in terms of uniform, predictable, and controllable volume of timber (commercially valuable wood mass).23 On the wings of imperialist expansion, inventories of ‘riches’ were soon systematically produced for the new colonies. While in the more recent approach to natural resources as ‘materials or substances’, the focus is on ‘what’ and ‘where’, with the other elements of the relationship left implicit, in reading the early inventories of natural riches these elements (‘for whom’ and ‘to do what’) are still perfectly clear.


Writing in the 1950s, when the discourse around natural resources was still unapologetically related to the master/subject framework and the extractive logic of the colonial adventure, Spoehr found it ‘probable that the term, and the feeling tones that it carries, is primarily a product of our own industrial civilization.’24 While appearing to describe what resources are, the definition and classification of ‘natural resources’ actually establish what nature is (e.g. timber, land, minerals) and the boundaries of its proper use, fixing as written in nature what are inevitably particular ‘cultural, technological and economic appraisals of the world’ and the social ends behind them. Again, this becomes particularly evident when the ‘natural’ in natural resources is read against the understanding of the natural world in early-modern Europe, and the use of the word in concepts such as ‘natural law’, ‘natural rights’, or ‘natural religion’, where it refers to universality and design.


Against this background of universality and design, the attribute ‘natural’ does not simply mean in nature but refers to being provided by nature to those who deserve them, that is those who know how to make the best use of them. Adding ‘natural’ to ‘resource’ camouflages as universal a concept that in its meaning is necessarily relative; it takes what is inevitably a particular answer to the questions ‘for whom’ and ‘to do what’ (the perspective of those compiling the inventories of riches) and makes it universal (naturalises it), effectively granting that perspective entitlement over the natural world.

Once the assumption that ‘natural resources’ are not the result of human activity is out of the way, we can start looking into the relationship that makes pastoralist landscapes a resource to pastoralists. Whether drylands or mountain areas, pastoralist landscapes are almost unfailingly characterized by structural variability, mainly resulting from precipitations that are unpredictably patchy both in time and in space. At the general level, pastoral systems’ adaptation to these conditions hinges on the strategy of interfacing variability in the environment with variability in the production system.25 Rather than trying to introduce stability in a structurally unstable environment before using it – the most common approach in development – this strategy aims at achieving a relative stability by using it as it is, working with variability rather than against it or, with an image that at times can be quite literal, by moving at the same pace with it.

Thus a pastoral herd in the Sahel can be taken South at the beginning of the rainy season to ‘meet’ the rains, and then North again to follow it in carefully prepared itineraries. Schareika and colleagues showed that when this strategy can be executed without too many obstacles, the herds enjoy a period of green pasture that is longer than what they would experience if they were to spend the entire rainy season in any of the locations they visit along the way.26


The strategic use of livestock mobility has favoured pastoralist landscapes over more ‘woody’ alternatives. The vegetation mosaics that characterize these landscapes have been shaped by the history of livestock grazing and the human occupation and management. In some cases, grassland itself is a consequence of human intervention. Palaeo-ecological methods of enquiry have made possible to detect human landscape modification from regular burning, which is known to favour and maintain the growth of grassland rather than woody vegetation. Within this line of enquiry, Terrell and colleagues found that grassland ecosystems traditionally classified as ‘natural’ were actually ‘domesticated’ landscapes, brought into existence by human modification and management.27 Coming from a different disciplinary perspective, Oba, Stenseth and Lusigi show that plant production and survival can be increased by moderate grazing.28


Pastoralist landscapes can be recognized by being dotted with nutrient enriched patches. Corralling livestock in camps and semi-permanent settlements produces concentrations of nutrients with profound effects on the vegetation over a much larger area. Causey29 and Lane30 have shown that these nutrient enriched patches resulting from the occupation and abandonment of pastoralist settlements remain ‘readable’ to the archaeology of savannah environments for several centuries. Grassland can be utilized for livestock only when water is present. In most areas and for most of the year, the only reliable water in pastoral rangelands is from man-made water points. Therefore, to the extent these grasslands are ‘resources’, they are not ‘natural’. This is equally true the other way round: the presence of water alone, without pasture, is not a resource for pastoralism. The conventional, conceptual separation of grass from water in defining resources is, in this case, unhelpful.

Pastoralism also results in particular forms of seed spreading. The literature on environmental services, such as the studies led by Silvestri at ILRI31 and by Hoffmann at FAO,32 consider it a well acknowledged service of pastoralism. This is unlikely to happen randomly: from Breman and De Wit,33 to Meuret and Provenza34 and Krätli and Schareika,35 feeding selectivity in livestock has been identified as a characteristic of pastoral systems. When bred and managed to feed selectively (i.e. only on the most nutritious bites), pastoral livestock can enjoy a diet that is richer than the average nutritional value of the range they graze on.


Selectivity also includes using fodder plants in such combinations that boost the appetite, especially (but not only) during the hot season, when the overall poor quality of fodder and the extreme conditions can easily result in a negative energy trade-off for ruminants, abating their appetite with potentially serious consequences. Expert herders carefully design their itineraries in order to maximize these nutritional opportunities offered by particular combinations of fodder plants. Pastoralists as different and distant as the Wodaabe in Niger and the Dassenetch in Southern Ethiopia, describe this practice of combining fodder plants as akin to‘adding the sauce’ to their own staple food in order to make it more appetizing.


Finally, by embedding a certain perspective on nature, the notion of natural resources also affects our understanding of land tenure. Gilbert36 and Alden Wily37 show that most land tenure systems within the European tradition hinge on the principle that ‘improvement’ of the land and its cultivation provide a right to claim the property of the land. It should be clear by now that this notion of land improvement is not broad enough to be usefully transferred to pastoralist landscapes. A remarkable exception is the Republic of Kenya’s first development policy for arid and semi-arid lands, stating that ‘the Government will recognize, through legislation, pastoralism as a legitimate form of productive land use and development on the same basis as farming, and incorporate the value of dryland goods and services within national economic planning.’38

Livestock, the ‘technology’ used by pastoralists, might not be as new as tractors but is certainly more sophisticated. If we understand ‘improving’ as adding value in a general sense and making land more productive, pastoralism has allowed land improvement on an exceptionally large scale.

We have come to the end of our tour exploring the limitations of treating ‘natural resources’ as things, and the implications of transposing this framework to pastoralist landscapes. Pastoralist landscapes are clearly the result of human activity: regular burning, artificial water points, artificial concentration of nutrients, managed grazing and seed distribution from selective feeding, and various strategies of herd mobility, including both mobility between different areas and daily itineraries targeting particular combinations of fodder plants. Describing these landscapes as natural resources is therefore both inappropriate and misleading. When following their adaptive operational logic, pastoral systems use competent herders and sophisticated ‘animal technology’ to work large extensions of land into a higher value resource (long-term change and management of the environment as a resource for pastoralism – but today also for conservation, tourism, environmental services).

The combined effect of these strategies ‘makes the land work harder’ than it would in absence of pastoralists’ activity (higher productivity associated with strategic mobility and feeding selectivity). Representing natural resources as things rather than relationships is an unfortunate legacy of equilibrium thinking, rooted in European history going back to the time of Newton and the early inventories of ‘riches’. This tradition of representing nature also affected common notions of land tenure, linking the value and ownership of land to agricultural labour and crop farming. From a land tenure perspective, that the resource ‘pastoral grasslands’ is created by human activity in pastoral systems, should be seen as a form of land development and be reflected in an appropriate revision of land tenure systems.



1. ILRI, Back to the Future. Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems. Corporate Report 2009-2010. International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi, 2010.

2. M.J. Otte and P. Chilonda, Cattle and Small Ruminant Production Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. A Systematic Review. Livestock Information Sector Analysis and Policy Branch, FAO Agriculture Department, Rome, 2002.

3. C. Seré and H. Steinfeld, in collaboration with J. Groenewold, World Livestock Production Systems. Current Status, Issues and Trends. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper, Rome, 1996.

4. B.N. Mitaru and O.A. Mwai. Development of Livestock Production Systems in Africa 2004, in Rosati et al. (eds), WAAP Book of the Year 2003. A Review on Developments and Research in Livestock Systems.

5. For example, the Proceedings of the International Grassland Congress, 20-24 November 2015, New Delhi.

6. UN, Convention on Biological Diversity (with annexes), concluded at Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992. United Nations, Rio de Janeiro, 1992.

7. FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, edited by B.D. Scherf and D. Pilling. FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Assessments, Rome, 2015 (86 emphasis added).

8. Cf. S. Krätli, Valuing Variability. New Perspectives on Climate Resilient Drylands Development. IIED, London, 2015.

9. K. Chapman, Complexity and Creative Capacity. Rethinking Knowledge Transfer, Adaptive Management and Wicked Environmental Problems. Routledge, London and New York, 2016.

10. L. Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation. Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 1999.

11. OECD, OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms – Following Sources from the European Commission. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, 2008.

12. WTO, World Trade Report 2010: Trade in Natural Resources. The World Trade Organization, New York, 2010.

13. A. Spoehr, Cultural Differences in the Interpretation of Natural Resources, in I. Burton and R.W. Kates (eds), Readings in Resource Management and Conservation. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956.

14. T.R. Sharma, Personal and Geographical Names in the Gupta Inscriptions. Concept Publishing Company, Delhi, 1976.

15. W. Kula, Measures and Men. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986.

16. B. Bathelt and J. Glückler, ‘Resources in Economic Geography: From Substantive Concepts Towards a Relational Perspective’, Environment and Planning 37, 2005, pp. 1545-1563.

17. L. Koerner, 1999, op. cit.

18. P. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2013.

19. M. Schabas and N. De Marchi (eds), ‘Oeconomies in the Age of Newton’, History of Political Economy 35, annual supplement, 2003.

20. A. Cooper, ‘"The Possibilities of the Land": The Inventory of "Natural Riches" in the Early Modern German Territories’, History of Political Economy 35, annual supplement, 2003, pp.154-172.

21. E.C. Spary, ‘"Peaches Which the Patriarchs Lacked": Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Natural Economy in France’, History of Political Economy 35, annual supplement, 2003, pp.14-41.

22. S. Muller-Wille, ‘Nature as a Marketplace: The Political Economy of Linnaean Botany’, History of Political Economy 35, annual supplement, 2003, pp. 154-172.

23. R. Rajan, Modernizing Nature: Forestry and Imperial Eco-Development 1800-1950. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

24. A. Spoehr, 1956, op. cit.

25. S. Krätli, Valuing Variability: New Perspectives on Climate Resilient Drylands Development. IIED, London, 2015.

26. N. Schareika, F. Graef, M. Moser and K. Becker, ‘Pastoral Migration as a Method of Goal-Oriented and Site-Specific Animal Nutrition Among the Wodaabe of South-Eastern Niger’, Die Erde 131, 2000, pp. 312-329.

27. J.E. Terrell et al., ‘Domesticated Landscapes: The Subsistence Ecology of Plant and Animal Domestication’, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10(4), 2003, pp. 323-368.

28. G. Oba, N.C. Stenseth and W.J. Lusigi, ‘New Perspectives on Sustainable Grazing Management in Arid Zones of Sub-Saharan Africa’, BioScience 50, 2000, pp. 35-51.

29. M. Causey, Delineating Pastoralist Behaviour and Long-Term Environmental Change: A GIS Landscape Approach on the Laikipia Plateau, Kenya. PhD dissertation, University of Oxford, Oxford, 2008.

30. P.J. Lane, ‘An Outline of the Later Holocene Archaeology and Precolonial History of the Ewaso Basin, Kenya’, Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 632, 2011, pp. 11-30.

31. S. Silvestri, P. Osano, J. de Leeuw, M. Herrero, P. Ericksen, J. Kariuki, J. Njuki, C. Bedelian and A. Notenbaert, Greening Livestock: Assessing the Potential of Payment for Environmental Services in Livestock Inclusive Agricultural Production Systems in Developing Countries. International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Nairobi, 2012.

32. I. Hoffmann, T. From and D. Boerma, Ecosystem Services Provided by Livestock Species and Breeds, With Special Consideration to the Contributions of Small-Scale Livestock Keepers and Pastoralists. Commission on Genetic Background Study Paper No. 66, Rev 1c Resources for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2014.

33. H. Breman and C.T. De Wit, ‘Rangeland Productivity and Exploitation in the Sahel’, Science, New Series, 221(4618), 1983, pp. 1341-1347.

34. M. Meuret and F. Provenza (eds), The Art and Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders. ACRES, Austin, 2014.

35. S. Krätli and N. Schareika, ‘Living off Uncertainty: The Intelligent Animal Production of Dryland Pastoralists’, European Journal of Development Research 22(5), 2010, pp. 605-622.

36. J. Gilbert, Nomadic Peoples and Human Rights. Routledge, London, 2014.

37. L. Alden Wily, ‘Looking Back to See Forward: The Legal Niceties of Land Theft in Land Rushes’, Journal of Peasant Studies 39(3), 2012, pp. 751-775.

38. Republic of Kenya, ‘Releasing Our Full Potential’. Sessional Paper No. 8 of 2012, on National Policy for the Sustainable Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands. Ministry of State for Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands, Republic of Kenya, Nairobi, para 5.3.7, emphasis added.