BETTY PRESS / PANOS PICTURES
The conflict between settled societies and nomads is as old as Cain and Abel. But now it
threatens to destroy nomadic societies. Wayne Ellwood explores the accelerating
antagonism and suggests that we would do better to preserve our differences.
The Great Wall of China is one of history’s boldest and clearest symbols of a frontier. Erected over 2,000 years ago this colossal piece of engineering snakes hundreds of miles across the undulating plains of China’s Northwest. Gazing towards the horizon from the walkway on top of the wall the grassy steppes seem to stretch on forever, to the rugged mountains of Mongolia and beyond to the endless Siberian taiga. When it was built the Great Wall symbolized the outer edge of civilization, a clear demarcation between the nomadic bands of barbarians beyond and the first unified Chinese Empire.
One Chinese Imperial Secretary, fearful of invasion by the warlike Mongols, described the nomadic horsemen as wild animals: ‘In their breasts beat the hearts of beasts,’ he wrote. ‘From the most ancient time they have never been regarded as part of humanity.’ 1
Today the Great Wall is a relic of history and an obligatory stop for foreign tourists on package tours. Buses disgorge swarms of visitors from New Jersey and Tokyo while industrious hawkers pitch postcards of Genghis Khan and bottles of Coca-Cola. The Mongol land north of the Wall (known as Inner Mongolia to distinguish it from the Republic of Mongolia) is now controlled by China. The nomads are still there, but they are a threat no longer.
The Chinese have discovered a way of keeping them in their place. Since 1949, when the Communists took control, millions of Han Chinese, with government encouragement, have flooded onto the steppes – with the result that Mongols are now a minority in their own country. There are 20 million Chinese in Inner Mongolia and barely four million Mongols. Thousands of acres of former pasture have been turned into irrigated farmland and leased to outsiders, disrupting centuries-old migration routes in the process.
Traditionally, Mongols are pastoral nomads: that means they move their animals in a predictable pattern according to the seasons and the availability of forage. In the summer they travel to high ground where rain is heavier and grasses more luxuriant; in the harsh winter, when temperatures may drop to minus 40ºC, they retreat to sheltered valleys.
This mobility is absolutely critical to Mongol culture – as it is to all nomads. But like governments the world over, the Chinese are suspicious of this central core of nomadism, this incomprehensible, alien urge to move. So they’ve set out to do something else about it. With the introduction of post-Maoist economic reforms herders no longer have customary rights to land. Instead they have to bid to win grazing rights to specific parcels, called kulums (enclosures). In return the Mongol owners are obliged to erect a house and dig a well. These ranches are big, often 20 or 30 square kilometres, but they are rarely vast enough to have both good summer and winter pastures.
What this means is that the Mongols have little choice but to plant crops to use as forage for their stock over the scarce winter months. Beijing has also demanded that the herders abandon their subsistence approach (essentially producing for themselves, selling animals when and if they need to) and enter the modern market economy – a shift which has led to much larger herds. With more animals the nomads now find themselves both cut off from their traditional migratory routes and increasingly hemmed in by expanding agriculture. The result? Serious over-grazing, soil compaction and, inevitably, advancing desertification.
Elsewhere this process of making nomads settle down (what is sometimes referred to as ‘sedenterization’) has been carried out with force. When Stalin imposed collectivization (making nomads into ranchers) on Kazakh herders in the 1930s, as many as half the population are estimated to have died fighting the change. Forty years later in Somalia forced settlement, influenced by the Soviet collectivist model, proved disastrous. After the drought of 1974 Somali planners attempted to move 120,000 camel herders from the north into four villages on the Indian Ocean coast. The goal was to train them to be fishermen and small farmers, not an easy task in a region where pastoralism is considered nothing less than a divine calling and camels are fussed over and loved like children. No points for guessing the scheme was a flop.2
The desire to control nomads politically and to incorporate them into national (ie non-nomadic) culture has always been strong. By their very nature nomads rub nation states up the wrong way. They don’t fit neatly into national boundaries and they tend to look and behave differently from majority populations. In post-colonial states run by bureaucrats wedded to the modernist vision of national progress, nomads are seen as distinctly ‘unmodern’ – an embarrassment, rather than productive members of society.
Whether we’re talking about small bands of nomadic hunters in the Amazon Basin, Inuit hunters in the Canadian Arctic or nomadic pastoralists in East Africa, there is strong pressure from governments everywhere to make nomads stay put. The reasons are varied, sometimes benevolent, usually patronizing. They need to be brought together for their own good, government officials claim – so they can be educated, taxed and given proper health care, electricity and roads.
‘We want, as a democratic government, to give all citizens the modern services that a state should give its citizens,’ the Israeli advisor on Arab affairs said in 1978 in an effort to justify settlement of Bedouin nomads.3 The same rationale was widely shared by African countries like the Sudan, home to nearly three million nomadic herders from various tribal groups. Efforts began to ‘modernize’ the livestock sector 30 years ago. One of the first goals of the (mainly Arab) Government in Khartoum was to settle the (mainly Black) nomads in the south. In the soothing words of a Government report of the time: ‘sedenterization... is a means of improving the economic and social conditions of those communities... to integrate them into the life of the nation and to enable them to contribute fully to national progress.’4
If not for their own good, then nomads must be settled for the good of the nation. State planners claim that wandering pastoralists are inefficient and that they are ignorant of modern animal husbandry. Their irrational tendency to increase herd numbers threatens to turn delicate rangeland into unproductive wasteland.
These assertions are bolstered by a theory known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a rationale which has shaped government and aid-agency attitudes to nomadic herders for the last three decades. Briefly the theory says this: lands held in common, rather than privately-owned, will inevitably suffer environmental degradation since it is in each nomad’s interest to maximize returns by adding more animals to the family herd.
The logical solution following from this analysis is for common lands to be controlled by the state or put into the hands of private owners. And that is just what’s happening in African countries like Kenya and Tanzania, where nomads are being dispossessed in their thousands.
In Kenya the Maasai have lost more than 1,000 square miles of grazing land over the past century. And the process is accelerating. In the early 1970s the Government launched its ‘Group Ranches’ scheme to register large chunks of savannah to particular Maasai communities. This was to be the first step towards private ownership of all Maasai common lands. It was devastatingly effective. Before long more educated or influential Maasai used their guile to hive off huge portions of land within the group territory. As one nomad complained bitterly: ‘We said all of us should be given equal pieces of land. But the chairman took a bigger portion than all the other people... My piece is small, only 60 hectares, while the chairman has 320 hectares.’5
This soon sparked a desperate free-for-all as ordinary herders saw they would be left with nothing if they did not claim land themselves. Eventually the ranches were subdivided with the majority of Maasai receiving plots too small to support their herds. Unable to make a living the nomads soon sold their small plots: today 40 per cent of some Group Ranches has been sold off to speculators.6
In addition, thousands of hectares of Maasai pasture have been creamed off by corrupt officials and local bigwigs. In his travels through Maasailand in 1992 British journalist George Monbiot found communities who had lost nearly all their land to outsiders. In some places, he wrote: ‘The entire savannah had been divided among politicians and their friends. Some of the best land belonged to President Moi; the second best to George Saitoti, the Vice-President and the inferior places to their colleagues.’7
To the south, in Tanzania, a quarter of a million nomads have had lands snatched by sharp-eyed entrepreneurs and massive state-run farming projects. On the Hanang plains near Arusha the Barabaig people, semi-nomadic cattle herders, have lost more than 40,000 hectares to a mammoth wheat-growing project funded by Canadian Government aid dollars. In some cases the dispossession has been violent: pastoralists have been beaten and their homes torched by Government workers clearing the land in advance of the towering Canadian-supplied tractors. Evidence is already mounting that mechanized mono-cropping of wheat is eroding the land at a rapid rate.8
The view that common ownership causes nomads to abuse the land is rooted in ignorance. In fact countless examples show that pastoral peoples traditionally had sophisticated systems to manage common resources. And this makes sense. The land is all that nomads have – to degrade it or treat it foolishly would be tantamount to suicide. The Barabaig, for example, have complex layers of control involving the community, clans and individual households. Access to pasture and water is rigidly controlled to avoid over-grazing and serious sanctions are levied on those who abuse customary rules.
In Niger, FulBe pastoralists elect a traditional manager called a Ruga to regulate herders’ use of natural resources. The Ruga decides which migration routes should be used according to local conditions and what animals should use which pastures. He also sets the times at which herds migrate and settles any conflicts which may arise between nomads and farmers along the way. If there are conflicts between nomads the Ruga alone decides on an appropriate punishment, including banishment from the community if necessary.9 When nomadic herders ‘own’ the land in common they make the laws regulating its use – and they make sure that everyone obeys them for the good of the community. The real tragedy occurs when lands are enclosed and environmental stewardship is replaced by intensive use for short-term profit.
Nomadic hunters share this same approach: living in symbiosis with the natural world, taking no more than they need and respecting the limits of the land. For example, Cree hunters in northern Quebec consider the animals they kill chashimikonow – a ‘gift’ from God. They believe they must not kill too much and only what is given. As a way of showing their seamless connection to nature they burn a piece of meat after the hunt, so the smoke is dispersed in the wind as a sign of respect to the animal spirits.10 As anthropologist Richard Lee notes: ‘Nomadic hunting societies have used the land for millennia and even doing their worst they couldn’t do much damage.’
Now, as age-old cultures are deprived of their lands, their mobility is rapidly changing. The damage is emerging everywhere. A classic example is the national park system in Africa. Under the guise of ‘conservation’ both hunter-gatherers and pastoralists are excluded – often by force – from forests and grasslands they have used for thousands of years. As local communities no longer ‘own’ the land they have little incentive to ‘manage’ it in a traditional, sustainable manner. The result is increased poaching and violent clashes between conservationists and nomads. In Waza National Park in Cameroon villagers were moved outside the park fence and can be jailed or fined if found on their former territory. With no stake of their own in the wildlife local people now act as guides for Nigerian poachers with high-powered rifles who slaughter any animal that happens to wander into range.11
The attitudes and practices of nomadic peoples toward the environment differ profoundly from the values of modern industrial society. It is by now a cliché (but no less compelling) to suggest that tribal peoples feel a mysterious spiritual link to the natural world – a fundamental bond which the rest of us, chained to our houses and property, have lost.
This may go some way towards explaining the deep-rooted ambivalence that settled cultures everywhere seem to feel for nomads. We admire them for their perceived independence as we resent them for an imagined freedom which has always escaped our grasp. In their disdain for national borders and distrust of centralized authority nomads exhibit a healthy scepticism of power – a scepticism we would do well to heed. Nomadic peoples tend to be politically egalitarian: their mobility gives them a safety valve. Like the Maku hunters of the Northwest Amazon most nomads bristle at the abuse of power by tribal leaders. If one Maku gets too bossy the others will simply pack up and leave.12
In his meditation on Australian Aborigines, The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin wrote that ‘psychiatrists, politicians, tyrants are forever assuring us that the wandering life is an aberrant form of behaviour; a neurosis; a form of unfulfilled sexual longing; a sickness which, in the interests of civilization, must be suppressed.’
Part of this suspicion is lodged deep in our cultural memory: the warlike, rapacious Huns; the marauding Mongol hordes; the shifty Native Americans who hunt buffalo and refuse to till the soil. This fear, now groundless, is still felt. In Europe, Gypsies have been reviled as vagrants and thieves for generations. A quarter of a million perished in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. And the hate continues – in February this year a Gypsy community in eastern Austria was attacked and four men were killed. The Gypsies were warned to ‘go back to India’. They’ve lived in the area for more than 600 years.
It is their ‘wandering life’ that makes nomads unique. Whether hunters or herders they display an uncanny resourcefulness and flexibility in their ability to survive on some of the most marginal lands on earth. Their elusive mobility enables them to adapt, and sometimes to prosper, in harsh and unpredictable environments. Reason enough for us to support their struggle to maintain their distinct way of life – on their own terms. But if we are really to accept our common links with nomads – and challenge our deep-seated prejudices – we’re going to have to confront a more basic and perhaps more primal fear. Our stubborn refusal to look in the mirror and recognize ourselves.
1 What Am I Doing Here?, Bruce Chatwin, Penguin 1990.
2 ‘Resettlement Schemes for Nomads: The Case of Somalia’, Jorg Janzen, Atlas of World Development, Wiley, Chichester 1994.
3 The Bedouin of the Negev, Minority Rights Group, London 1990.
4 Project of Community Development for Settlement of Nomads in the Sudan, Government of Sudan 1962.
5,6 ‘Social and Economic Factors in the Privatization, Sub-Division and Sale of Maasai Ranches’, John Galaty, Nomadic Peoples 30:1992.
7 No Man’s Land, George Monbiot, Macmillan, London 1994.
8 ‘The Barabaig/NAFCO Conflict in Tanzania’, Charles Lane, Forests, Trees and People Newsletter No 20.
9 Baobab 14, ALIN, Dakar, July 1994.
10 ‘The Enduring Pursuit’, Harvey A Feit, Key Issues in Hunter-Gatherer Research, Berg, Oxford 1994.
11 Whose Eden? IIED, London 1994.
12 ‘Forest Rovers of the Amazon’, John Reid, UNESCO Courier, November 1994.
Cultural Survival (Canada)
World Council of Indigenous Peoples,
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995