What can our increasingly mobile world learn from pastoralists?

A recent PASTRES seminar at the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University in Florence discussed mobility, and how lessons from pastoralists might be important for thinking about policy themes such as international migration and cross-border trade. The recording of the seminar and slides are below.

Audio recording


Why are pastoralists’ experiences relevant in our mobile world?

Pastoralists’ perspectives challenge many ideas derived from a settled state perspective – dominated as they are by fixity, settlement, controlled migration, regulated movement, fences and borders.

In a world characterised by a global web that enables continuous and growing mobilisation of resources, flows and exchanges, a perspective that starts from pastoral experience suggests new ways of thinking about policy and practice in a range of different areas, and forces us to challenge assumptions that have informed science and policy making in recent decades.

How do pastoralists move, and why?

Herders and shepherds move seasonally in search of opportunities to take care of their animals and ensure their best performance. They do so by taking into account the medium- and longer-term needs of their herds, as well as those of the household and of the rangelands.

For pastoralists, avoiding fixity and crossing borders are vital for chasing resource availability and market opportunities, or to escape climatic extremes and dangers or diseases. This means that flexible movement in response to changing conditions is essential for pastoral livelihoods. This emerges through extended networks and adaptive forms of governance.

Pastoralists’ responses to uncertainties hinge on specific patterns of mobility. These are not the same everywhere: different patterns have been described, including nomadic, transhumant, semi-sedentary agro-pastoralism, and others. More recently, analysts have described a continuum, whereby herders and herds move or do not move opportunistically, according to the risks and chances posed by ecological, economic and/or social domains.

Livelihood strategies in pastoral areas are constantly engaged in playing differently with mobility. In the Sahel, in the Maghreb, on the Tibetan plateau or Mediterranean Europe, the principle of mobility is retained as central to the livelihood strategy of pastoralists, although the associated social practices and technologies change continuously. The emergence of migratory flows, mobile phones, mechanised transport and other factors have shaped new patterns of mobility in these regions.

These include patterns of ‘inverse mobility’ in the Maghreb and Mashreq, where livestock movement is limited. Administrative borders confine pastoralists’ movements, and only a part of the household and herd move seasonally. Instead, water and forage are brought to livestock through mechanised vehicles, or, alternatively, ‘substitutional’ herding occurs, where absentee landlords hire shepherds and pay them through remittances.

Mobility is central to our societies

To some people, the practice of scanning rangelands looking for ‘greener pastures’ may seem like an ineffective, old-fashioned practice, a remnant of a tradition just waiting to disappear. Pastoral mobility has made herding communities difficult to analyse for scientists, and hard to accept for politicians. This is a major reason why pastoralists have inhabited the ‘margins’ of science and policymaking in the past.

Yet in  societies that increasingly live through and bet on enhanced and expanded mobility, through the migration of people and the global trade of goods, and whose technological developments in the last centuries have enhanced the possibilities of mobility, ignoring these pastoral experiences of mobility is inappropriate.

Mobility is  increasingly central to our societies. Nomadic practices and networks that enhance mobility are synonymous with a fluid, flexible, mobile modernity, which is governed through a continuous and growing flow of people, resources, information, commodities and finances. Yet our policy narratives and institutional settings are poorly equipped to tackle accelerating patterns of mobility.

Perhaps, as discussed at the recent seminar, we can learn from pastoralists as the world becomes more and more mobile.

2 thoughts on “What can our increasingly mobile world learn from pastoralists?

  1. I apologize for the length of this comment, but your seminar was provocative. You may want to produce a transcript of the post-presentation Q&A session, as a number of insights were raised there as well, which I’m sure can generate productive thinking further on.

    To choose one such insight: the notion that there are different types of immobility. This for me is extraordinarily important, namely, immobility (more formally, non-mobility) has its own flux/es and dynamic/s, as one respondent put it.

    I’m not sure I understand what the presenter fully meant, but if I may take over the story of immobility for a moment and push it further.

    Yes, from one perspective, differentiation of types of mobility and now immobility supports that idea that we are dealing with a continuum of strategies, where resources and their management range from more or less mobile to more or less immobile. (Such a “continuum” would look more like 4-dimensional chess, but that’s another story!)

    Differentiation into “more or less,” however, begs two methodological questions: What, if anything, is both mobile and immobile at the same time? (For example, the resource—one of several water points—is fixed in its use at its site, precisely because usages at this and the other water points are managed together over time and/or space.)

    More challenging and rewarding is answering the other question, I think: What in any of this is neither mobile nor immobile? Do we find cases where neither term together provides a goodness-of-fit for what is being observed in herding systems? If so, how does this help us better understand the importance of “mobility” elsewhere?

    At a first impression—what is neither mobile nor immobile?—seems to be contrary to the very notion of pastoralism and the theme of the seminar.

    But it is not antithetical if pastoralism all along has been about “multiple settlement templates,” rather than assuming pastoralism was a “pre-settlement template” that got screwed up because of modernity and all those drivers we now say we know and don’t love.

    Once we free ourselves of pre-settlement notions of pastoralism, then answers to—What is neither mobile nor immobile in contemporary herding societies?—become many.

    My own favorite is that of thinking of contemporary herding behavior—those multiple settlement strategies—as their own infrastructures. Yes, electrons move in an electricity grid; but the grid is managed as a system by real-time adjustments in its systemwide control variables, like frequency and voltage, over the entire system. Yes, individual livestock, grazing/browsing sites, and/or water point usage shift over time and space; but the system as a livestock/grazing/browsing/water system is managed by real-time adjustments in……what? The cross-season grazing/browsing itineraries of the herd and herders (i.e., itinerary as a control variable), for example?

    Answering the “what”, case-by-case, is to me the big empirical question—and there is no reason to believe there is just one what, if there is one at all.

    For instance, in another settlement template, is the livestock/grazing/browsing/water system managed as a system through real-time adjustments in the “neither mobile nor immobile” livelihood regime called “remittances from off-site household members”? (Think here of globalized financial and monetary infrastructures and how adjusting the real-time transactions involving remittances affects livestock/grazing/ browsing/water practices and livelihoods, here and now before questions of mobility or immobility ensue, if such questions arise at all in this settlement template)?

    To be clear I don’t know the answers to these and like questions at the “neither-nor” node of analysis.

    What is clear—and this is the value of your comparative discussions starting from the side of contemporary pastoralisms—is that by first being open to and understanding that there are different types of mobility, and then seeing immobility itself is not static or homogenous, gets us to the point of having to ask and answer, what is both/and? what is neither/nor? It is such a pathway, I believe, that is sorely missing and needed in the obsessive fixation by Western decision-makers and media over “illegal migration” there.


  2. thank you for these inspiring thoughts Emery. indeed we could say that patterns of mobility often hinge on immobile infrastructure; these might be roads, antennas, transhumance corridors, water points (but even identity, as some colleagues what admit) – which in fact have been established to spur mobilities. So indeed the im/mobility relationships should be more critically understood.


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