How a “landscape” approach could be the key to securing the Sahel – Sebastiaan Soeters

02 Nov 2018
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Conflict sensitivity to the development and climate change approaches in the Sahel will be determine the stability of this vast and complex region. One critical but often excluded group, argues Dr Sebastiaan Soeters, are Sahelian pastoralists, without whom the current approaches to development will be compromised. Dr Soeters presents findings from his research on how a “landscape” approach could be the key to securing the Sahel as part of the DFID-funded, NWO-WOTRO managed Conflict and Cooperation in the Management in Climate Change programme (CCMCC).

Decision-makers in London, The Hague and Paris, amongst others, are clamoring to exert some control over the Sahel. Fears about immigration and radicalisation seem to have moved this previously-remote part of the world onto Europe’s doorstep. The Mediterranean Sea and Sahara Desert – in the past regarded as impenetrable buffers against migration from West Africa – suddenly appear trivial and European policymakers recognise that more will need to be done.

The current push to prioritise development for security takes place as climate discourses surge to the centre of development policy debates. Furthermore, pastoralism, as a key feature of Sahelian landscapes, is re-emerging as a focus of European thinking about the Sahel. Exactly how pastoral livelihoods fit into new Sahelian development frameworks will largely determine the level of success in terms of fostering a meaningful stability in the Sahel.

There is significant complexity involved in integrating pastoralism into broader development frameworks, both for national governments, as well as donors. Pastoral livelihoods in the Sahel, as elsewhere, have traditionally been supported by practitioners and policymakers in a distinct and isolated ‘pastoralism silo’. These efforts have been driven largely by livestock departments within government structures as well as amongst donors.

In both instances these departments are staffed overwhelmingly by veterinarians, who as matter of skillset, have paid little attention to broader development policy concerns. For instance, a $248 Million project supporting pastoralism in six Sahelian countries, funded by the World Bank, aims primarily to increase the productivity of pastoral systems by improving access to essential services (veterinary services, market access etc.) for two million pastoralists. However, the programme seems to have taken no consideration of the impacts which increasing livestock numbers might have on sedentary, crop-based, farming livelihoods in targeted areas.

A much larger policy arena focusing on crop-based agricultural developments and strengthening the resilience of farmers in the Sahel, equally, pays precious little attention to pastoral dynamics within targeted landscapes. The Ghana Commercial Agricultural Project (GCAP), also funded largely by the World Bank and USAID, recently earmarked 20k hectares of ‘unused’ land along the Nasia river in northern Ghana’s semi-arid zone, for expanding rice farming. This area, the Nasia-Nabogo Valley, also happens, however, to be a hotspot for farmer-pastoralist conflict in Ghana as competition for access to the very same river intensifies.

The Towards Inclusive Climate Change Interventions (TICCI), funded by DFID, through the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), set out broadly to situate pastoral dynamics within larger agricultural development and climate change policy frameworks in West Africa and, in so doing, attempted to break down isolated silos dealing with crop-based agricultural development on the one hand, and pastoral dynamics on the other.

Two case studies from the TICCI project in Ghana are particularly illuminating in terms of demonstrating the impacts of siloed development thinking on farmer-pastoral relations. One is a dry-season farming initiative implemented on a low-lying flood-plain in Ghana’s Upper East Region, by a local NGO, whilst the other is a large scale, private sector, in-growers irrigation scheme in Ghana’s Northern Region.

In each we see the same dynamic; the project is successful in engaging farmers in dry-season farming, increasingly and diversifying household income streams, and reducing exposure to increasingly unreliable rainfall. However, as household incomes rise (largely as result of the success of project), farmers invest in livestock, and as the number of heads of livetsock increases, ethnic-Fulani pastoralists in search of work as contract herders, are drawn into the landscape, many of whom also bring their own livestock. The landscape comes to be congested from two sides; the area under cultivation increases (as too does the length of the crop calendar) and, the number of livestock increases which, as a result, increases the frequency of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists.

These dynamics at scale, even in the most watered down version, in which ‘unused’ bushland (often used as pasture by pastoralists) is converted to cropland, has profound implications for the development in, and the security of, the Sahelian belt. Coupled with population growth, agricultural development and climate policy frameworks have initiated the mass conversion of bushland to cropland.

In Mali, land identified as cropland expanded at an average of 1365 km2 per year between 1975 and 2013. In Burkina Faso, 1720km2 of bushland has been converted to cropland on a yearly basis over the same period, whilst in Nigeria, that number is a massive 4912 km2 per year. Incidentally, Nigeria is also a country which has seen a significant escalation of farmer-pastoral conflicts.

Whilst much of this is undeniably driven by population growth, certainly, national and donor-driven agricultural development efforts, with an increasingly strong climate orientation, has made a significant contribution to this expansion.

The expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Sahel has, in turn, resulted in a, by equal measure, reduction in the availability of pasture. Whilst the drivers of farmer-pastoral conflict are diverse, complex, often localised, and poorly understood, at its heart, it is the manifestation of a competition over resources, and it is unrealistic, and perhaps irresponsible, decouple the increases in the intensity and frequency of farmer-pastoral conflicts across West Africa, from the transformation of bushland to cropland, and/or the decreasing ease of access to  resources upon which for pastoral production systems fundamentally depend.

The current siloed development trajectories in the Sahel, as they gather speed following renewed strategic interests in the Sahel, are thoroughly unsustainable in terms of relations between sedentary farming and pastoralists dependent upon mobility. Localised conflicts between farmers and pastoralists potentially lock-in the marginalisation of pastoral societies, with implications for long-term security in the Sahel more broadly.

Certainly, to avoid inadvertently worsening the security situation in this way, policy frameworks (both of national governments and donor) require a new point of departure for thinking about agricultural development and resilience in West African dryland areas. This new point of departure should focus on multiple resource users within targeted dryland landscapes, and on how access to natural resources is negotiated between those multiple-users.

Such a view would account for both farmers and pastoralists, but also for fisherfolk, landless youth who supplement protein intake through hunting in bushland and forests, and women, whose livelihoods may depend upon foraging amongst parkland trees. This new point of departure would require the tearing down of silos which currently define development and resilience thinking in the Sahel, marking an end of projects which seek to support either farmers or pastoralists, and instead, support landscapes and all those who depended upon it.

Sebastiaan Soeters was part of CCMCC’s “Towards more inclusive, cooperative and participative climate change interventions in Kenya, Ghana and Burkina Faso” project. More information on the programme’s key findings and case studies related to pastoralists can be found at 

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