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'You can't go home again': Pastoralism in the new millennium

Research reports

Research reports

Pastoralism, the use of extensive grazing in rangelands for livestock production, is one of the key production systems in the world's drylands. Nonetheless, throughout much of its long history its reputation has been unflattering, its practitioners marginalised by sedentary cultivators and urban dwellers. Pastoral societies have risen and fallen, fragmented into isolated families or constructed world-spanning empires and their demise regularly announced, often in the face of entirely contrary evidence of their persistence.

By some paradox, anthropologists and social theorists have conducted a prolonged love affair with

pastoralism, at times seeing it as an inevitable stage in the growth of civilization or perversely caricaturing it as an anarchic institution ready to pull down that same civilization. Planners have denigrated the mobility characteristic of pastoral societies and novelists have romanticised the wanderings of these same nomads. Development experts, remarking the enormous passing herds, first saw pastoral systems as rich in potential, and later castigated pastoralists as vulnerable and unable to invest in development. To all this, pastoralists have remained largely indifferent, since a certain scepticism towards the schemes and caprices of the external world is an almost inevitable product of the independent image they have of themselves.

The late twentieth century has seen a new upwelling of writing on pastoralism, both sentimental and

aggrieved, regretting its inevitable demise and blaming pastoralists for their failure to respond to the vagaries of climate and the international economic system. Investment in pastoral development, which reached a high point in the 1970s, crumbles progressively every year. At the same time, however, pastoralists themselves have become far more articulate and able to communicate their concerns and desires to the outer world. The collapse of the Soviet Empire has opened up the great steppes of Central Asia for the first time in seventy years making accessible a whole world of pastoralism that had been essentially closed to researchers since 1919. Indeed, the likely effect has been to expand pastoralism, as refugees from now collapsed industrial enterprises that only functioned with significant subsidy have sought to revive the only method of subsistence that is practical through much of this region.

The time seems apposite then, for a view of pastoralism in the world as a whole, combining recent insights from archaeology and anthropology with twentieth century experiences of development. Despite a plethora of case studies, monographs and collected papers on African and Asian pastoral systems, integrated worldwide overviews of pastoralism are surprisingly few. The most recent essay in this direction is probably Khazanov (1984) which approaches pastoralism from a historical point of view, focusing on nomad relations with external societies and the origin of the state. The rich and complex literature on pastoral development is effectively ignored, perhaps unsurprisingly from the point of view of Soviet ethnography. More important, however, is the failure to integrate the biological, to recognise that pastoral society is above all driven by the nature and requirements of different species. This monograph is intended to try and provide a synopsis of the present and draw out the implications for the future.

Roger Blench