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Don't Fence Me In

Indigenous Peoples

FulBe herder: 'Does a field have legs to walk when it gets thirsty?'
Don't fence
me in
The age-old rivalries between farmers and nomadic herders have taken on a dramatic new twist
in the Sahel. Karen Schoonmaker Freudenberger reports from Senegal.

In the spring of 1991 hundreds of brightly-painted buses suddenly invaded Senegal’s Mbegué Forest from all directions. Wearing their distinctive patchwork garb, members of the country’s Mouride Islamic brotherhood filled the air with singing and chanting. Following the orders of their leader, Serigne Mbacké, within a matter of weeks they cut down more than five million trees and brutally expelled more than 6,000 FulBe1 pastoralists and 100,000 cattle from the forest. Two months later, the rains began: the once-lush pastures were ploughed under and the land planted with a vast plantation of peanuts.

The Mbegué reserve lies in the Sahel, the transitional area between the vast ocean of desert in the Saharan north and the more fertile agricultural zones to the south. The Sahara and the northern Sahel have traditionally been the domain of nomadic herders whose colorful billowing caftans brighten the desert as they follow their cattle, sheep or goats in the constant quest for water and pasture. The southern Sahel and the tropics beyond are occupied largely by farmers whose carefully-tended crops create a patchwork of fields on land passed from generation to generation. Across the Sahel the lifestyles of pastoralists and farmers meet and often compete for the same land and water. Pastoralists need open spaces for extensive grazing. Farmers enclose their land, intensively cultivating their fields and taking great pains to ensure that animals are kept far from tempting grain or vegetable crops.

A windswept landscape
This competition for space is as old as the occupations themselves. But now it is intensifying as farmers expand into areas once exclusively used by pastoralists. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Ferlo region of northern Senegal where FulBe pastoralists have lived with their hump-backed cattle since the fifteenth century. The Ferlo lies in the heart of the Sahel and covers much of the northern quarter of Senegal. To an outsider many of its wide expanses appear as desolate wastelands. Rainfall is both sparse and highly capricious. One hamlet may receive a drenching downpour while another five kilometres away remains bone dry. A village may have good rains one year followed by three or four years of drought.

The windswept Ferlo landscape is painted in shades of brown and grey and many of the trees are spiny, drought-resistant species easily mistaken for stunted bushes. The grasses beneath their spindly boughs appear dry and brittle. But the region’s stark appearance belies the richness and complexity of its ecology, best understood by the FulBe.

The FulBe who live in the Ferlo are part of a large ethnic group that spreads across much of the Sahel. They grow a few subsistence crops but live mostly from the milk and meat of their cattle, sheep and goats. For them, the Ferlo has been a land of opportunity, rich in a multitude of grass and tree species that make excellent fodder for their animals. The key to their success has been their mobility. By practising a degree of nomadism, the FulBe have been able to adapt to whatever conditions nature serves up. Rather than waiting helplessly for rain that may never come, they seek out the productive pastures where rain has already fallen. Underlining the advantages of nomadism a young FulBe herder wryly asked: ‘Does a field have legs to walk when it gets thirsty?’

At times when the entire Ferlo experiences drought the FulBe move out of the region altogether, driving their cattle further south into areas of higher rainfall. These more southern zones are inhabited by the Wolof and Serer people, who make their living primarily from agriculture. These areas are densely populated and the FulBe would have trouble finding grazing land for their cattle were it not for several protected forest regions. These reserves were created by the French colonists and maintained by later governments in order to preserve trees and protect the land from soil erosion. Farming was prohibited in the reserves though herders were allowed to graze their animals. In years when the rains don’t come these reserves are havens for the FulBe as they move south, serving as a kind of insurance policy for those who make their homes in the riskier climates to the north. The Mbegué forest until it was decimated in 1991 was one of the most important of these reserves.

The FulBe are far less mobile now than they were 50 years ago. In the past, herders had to move their families out of the Ferlo each dry season when the watering holes dried up. Then, in the 1950s, the colonial government started to drill boreholes 200 to 300 metres into the aquifer. There is now a grid of wells, with pumping stations at 30-kilometre intervals. Water sloshes into giant cement tanks and then is siphoned into barrels for household needs. Nearby, animals congregate patiently to take their turns drinking from the long cement troughs fed from the tanks.

Senegal Elegant straw igloos
Since the installation of these boreholes many FulBe have set up semi-permanent camps or villages around the water sources. Most people remain there year-round while one or two men head out to accompany the cattle, guiding them from borehole to borehole depending on the availability of water and the quality of pastures in different areas.

Others practise ‘micro-nomadism’ – moving their camps of elegantly-functional straw igloos to more remote pasture areas when water is widely available, then returning to the boreholes during the dry season. In spite of this tendency to settle down, the FulBe still count on being able to move within the pastoral zones to good pastures and to leave the area to move south in years when there is drought.2

It is this mobility that is threatened as the grazing lands of the Ferlo are squeezed and compressed on all sides. The pressure comes from a variety of sources. To the north the Ferlo is bordered by the Senegal River. Traditionally the river’s annual flood nourished the fields and pastures of the FulBe who lived along its banks. In the 1980s two dams, one at Manantali in Mali and the other at Diama in Senegal, were built to support large-scale irrigation schemes. Because the land could now be irrigated it was taken over by wealthy farmers. As a result the FulBe were pushed deeper into the Ferlo.

To the west, former grazing lands have been turned into orchards and gardens whose high walls keep out both people and animals. Water pumped from the shallow aquifer along Senegal’s coast helps grow green beans, mangoes and strawberries. These lush gardens are owned by powerful religious leaders, Lebanese businessmen and other members of an élite based in the capital, Dakar. They serve both wealthy city dwellers and Europe’s insatiable desire for fresh fruit and vegetables in winter.

To the south the issue is encroachment on so-called ‘insurance pastures’. Forests like Mbegué are fiercely coveted by powerful interests seeking to expand peanut production. In 1991 the Government granted the Khalifa General (Supreme Head) of the Mouride Islamic Brotherhood permission to put to the plough more than 60 per cent of the Mbegué reserve. A year later (shortly before the national elections) the Mouride leader urged his followers to support Abdou Diouf in his bid for re-election as President of Senegal.

Where rich pastures once flourished, the Mbegué forest is now carpeted by vast peanut plantations. The original Mbegué reserve had 38 water points suitable for watering animals; 35 of those were on fertile lands taken over by the Mourides. The Mbegué was the last important reserve remaining in the agricultural zone immediately south of the Ferlo.

But the pasture available to the FulBe is also being reduced by developments within the Ferlo itself. As lands further south are degraded and population pressures increase, farmers are tempted into areas previously considered too dry for agriculture. Each year new fields are cleared around the boreholes, blocking access routes used by cattle as they move from one pasture area to another and creating bitter conflicts between herders and farmers. Much of the new settlement in the region is organized by the same Mouride sect that took over the Mbegué forest lands.

Erratic climate
Bureaucrats in the capital, Dakar, and others argue that concern for the FulBe’s nomadic system is a sentimental attachment to an archaic way of life. And they point to the FulBe themselves, many of whom have abandoned pastoralism in favor of farming and ranching. But this misses the point. Nomadic grazing systems have evolved in response to erratic climates with limited rainfall. By moving from place to place in relation to the available resources the FulBe make optimal use of limited water resources and spread the impact of their activities more evenly over the environment.

The pastoral footprint is light on these fragile ecologies. Peanut farming is not. Peanuts were introduced by the French as a cash crop in the nineteenth century and later promoted by the independent Senegalese government as a critical source of foreign exchange. Local farmers like them because they’re versatile: the nuts can be sold for cash, eaten in stews and sauces or pressed for cooking oil. In addition, the leaves and stems of the plant can be dried into hay for fattening sheep or feeding cows during the dry season. Many households earn nearly as much from peanut hay as from the nuts themselves.

Unfortunately, the crop is also a menace to fragile environments based on sandy soils. When it is harvested the entire plant is uprooted, leaving neither organic matter to enrich the soil nor groundcover to protect the topsoil during the long dry season. The loose sand which remains is eroded at alarming rates as harmattan winds whip down from the Sahara.

Peanut damage
Small farmers with a few hectares of land make scrupulous efforts to combat the negative side of growing peanuts. They use sophisticated patterns of crop rotation, save as many trees as possible and fertilize the soil with cow and sheep manure. They can’t stop the damage caused by peanut farming but they can at least slow down the process.

The powerful religious leaders and their followers are much less conscientious. Their farming practices mine the land, destroying trees and soils for short-term profit. On land like Mbegué, all trees are clear-cut and the stumps removed so that the fields can be ploughed. The plough blades churn up the sandy soils, which leaves barren expanses of denuded earth once the plants have been uprooted. When the soils have been exhausted, the Mourides move on. The area is left a wasteland where even grasses take years to regenerate.

Each new farm or plantation contributes to the relentless compression of grazing lands and reduces the FulBe’s options for mobility – a critical element for their survival as pastoralists. Both the human and environmental costs of this transition are high. When the FulBe can no longer move their cattle in search of better pastures, they will be driven to a different kind of migration. A path which will take them to the crowded slums of Dakar.

Pastoralists like the FulBe play a critical role in the sustainable management of fragile ecosystems. Both Third World governments and aid agencies need to recognize this. The key is to work with local people to develop policies to protect grazing lands and nomadic rights where pastoralism is both more sustainable and more environmentally appropriate than farming. In Senegal they need to act quickly – or there won’t be any pastures left to protect.

Karen Schoonmaker Freudenberger is a social scientist who works on environment and development issues in Africa. She lived in Senegal from 1974 to 1991.

1 There are many subgroups of FulBe (also known as Fulani) in West Africa. The group in this article are the JeerinkooBe.
2 In the first major Sahel drought (1972/73) following the FulBe settling around the boreholes, many families thought they could depend on the wells and not move south. They suffered tremendous loss of animals due to shortage of grass even when water was sufficient for drinking. In the next drought (1983) they revived their traditional strategies and moved south. They lost fewer livestock and recovered more quickly from the disaster.

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