Pastoralists: Seasoned to Uncertainty

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Uncertainty as a constant

Turn on the news, open a newspaper, and ‘crisis’ is the word used to characterise the situation in many domains, such as financial issues, migration, public health, the climate, or political economy. The paradigm of recent times whereby most societal variables were under control is over. Uncertainty increasingly characterises complex and interdependent systems, and is the new prevailing dimension of daily life.

At the same time, political and economic decision-makers often play down this insecurity as they make policy, assuming the risks are known. However, as we have seen with the financial crash, climate change, discouraging public discourse on mass migration, and recurrent threats of disease epidemics, responses to these challenges have been ineffective and sometimes dangerous, with dramatic impact on lives, economies, and the earth itself.

Uncertainty as a resource

Given this state of affairs, embracing uncertainty – and indeed ignorance – is essential for our survival. How can we learn to live with it?

Pastoralists, whose lives are tuned to living with and through uncertainty, have something to teach us in this regard. For pastoralists uncertainty is part of their lives and society. It is a resource, essential for their livelihood, and sits at the heart of rangeland and livestock management. This has been the case for millennia.

By talking with people dealing with global uncertainties, whether bankers, climate modelers, infrastructure engineers or public health specialists, the PASTRES project aims to explore what lessons pastoral communities might offer to better deal with risks in those domains.

Some interesting parallels

Take, for example, a comparison between a pastoral herd and a financial portfolio. Both have to generate reliable outputs through risks and opportunities. What might we learn from pastoral systems in terms of network management, increasing transparency and collective accountability? Could we not focus on communities – and their cultures and practices – with a view to contain greed, ensure trust, monitor agents and avoid future collapses of financial systems? While finance and banking seems very remote from pastoralism, there is more in common than you might initially think.


The same applies for critical infrastructures such as the control rooms of electricity supply systems, nuclear power plants and air traffic control centres, where system design and management are geared to deliver products and services in a reliable manner. Pastoralists also must ensure reliable outcome (milk, market products, ecosystem services) through systems characterised by high input variance and large degrees of uncertainty and risk. Critical infrastructure managers as much as herders deal continuously with experimentation, innovation and adaptive response in their daily operations. Herd management might thus have elements to share and indicate to infrastructure engineers and managers.

Pastoralists with their embedded mobility could also provide relevant insights into the management and governance of migratory flows. Looking at the world through the eyes of pastoralists ensures that mobility is given the centrality it deserves in understanding societal dynamics. For pastoralists, mobility across territories and borders is vital for managing risk and uncertainty. Complex networks linking kin and others are at the core of market functioning, while flexible movement in response to changing resource availability is essential for avoiding crises, threats and hazards, including droughts, epidemics and conflicts. These perspectives on mobility challenge policy narratives derived from a settled state perspective, dominated as they are by fixity, settlement, controlled migration, regulated movement, fences and borders. Can we learn from pastoralists about how mobility could help responding to the challenges posed by migratory flows? Could there be ways to engage on wider debates about migration and enhance conceptual, methodological and policy dimensions of working with mobile communities?

A provocative conversation

With this intent PASTRES undertakes PhD fieldwork research in six different regions – Isiolo in northern Kenya, Gujarat in north-western India, Qinghai on the Tibetan plateau in western China, Tataouine in southern Tunisia, Sardinia in Italy and Borana region in southern Ethiopia. It further engages with a number of affiliates to explore pastoral dynamics in other pastoral areas.

Through learning from these pastoral settings we aim to develop a conversation with other domains where uncertainties are central, and open up a debate about how to embrace uncertainty in policy and practice to address global uncertainties. Hopefully, the interactions between quite different areas will open up a provocative conversation about responding to uncertainty in the modern age, informed by pastoralists’ experiences worldwide.

More information on the PASTRES website The PASTRES newsletter provides updates about our evolutions, and our fortnightly blog provides themes for debate and engagement with uncertainty from a pastoral perspective.

Michele Nori is Research Associate at the Robert Schuman Centre, where he carries out his research as part of the ERC-funded project ‘PASTRES: Pastoralism, Uncertainties and Resilience’. With a background in tropical agriculture and a Ph.D. in rural sociology, Michele  has worked extensively in different pastoral regions of the globe with a view to understanding and supporting local livelihood systems.