Mauritania’s nomadic herders seek safe passage through drought

Droughts have become so long they have forced some pastoralists to abandon their way of life entirely.
Wednesday 30/05/2018
A girl carries cans to fill them with water in Katawane, near Nema in south-eastern Mauritania. (AFP)
A girl carries cans to fill them with water in Katawane, near Nema in south-eastern Mauritania. (AFP)

R’KIZ, Mauritania - Chronic fatigue, weight loss and lingering sadness — Mohammed Elmouved does not need a doctor to diagnose his symptoms.

“It’s my animals,” said the livestock owner, at a dusty herders’ camp in R’Kiz, on the edge of the Mauritanian desert

“They’ve barely had anything to eat or drink in days, so the weakest ones are dying… Whatever they feel, I feel.”

His emaciated goats wobble around a trough half-filled with water. Smaller bleating competitors try to push to the front for a drink.

With his goats, cows and camels, Elmouved crosses stretches of arid land in southern Mauritania to reach Senegal, 40km away on Africa’s west coast, where he plans to sell part of his herd to buy feed for his stronger animals.

“There are no trees, no pastures here but I think I will have more luck on the other side of the (Senegal) river,” said the herder, aged in his 50s and swathed in a long bright blue-and-gold robe.

For centuries, nomadic herders across the Sahel, a vast dry region just south of the Sahara Desert, have moved hundreds of kilometres every year to find pasture for their herds.

Worsening drought is depleting traditional grazing areas, forcing pastoralists from Mauritania — a country already nearly three-quarters desert or semi-desert — to travel ever longer distances into neighbouring Mali and Senegal in search of fodder and water.

This is causing conflict with farmers along the way. The herds damage fields and cattle raiders steal animals, threatening an age-old way of life as rising poverty forces many herders to sell and move to cities.

However, an innovative project is under way to protect the livestock sector, which accounts for 13% of Mauritania’s economy and provides 75% of the population with income, UN data indicate.

Charities, researchers and local authorities are setting up pastoralist corridors to ensure that herders can safely take livestock across national boundaries in the Sahel.

Key to the success of such corridors is persuading those living along the way that herders bring more benefits than threats.

“If a pastoralist does not move, he dies,” said El Hacen Ould Taleb, head of Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a Mauritanian charity working with pastoralists. “His animals will become ill or die due to the lack of food and water and he won’t be able to feed his family.”

The remains of a goat laying in the sand in Katawane, near Nema, southeastern Mauritania. (AFP)
The remains of a goat laying in the sand in Katawane, near Nema, southeastern Mauritania. (AFP)

Safe passage

Finding precious pasture is tricky when herders “have no idea where to start” or when mayors do not allow you to pass through their villages, said Ould Taleb.

His organisation mapped routes along Mauritania’s southern border with Senegal, based on water points, grazing areas and markets where pastoralists can sell their animals and produce.

It lobbied local authorities to secure the routes and give pastoralists and their herds the right to pass through.

The initiative, led by French charity Acting for Life, is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development.

“Pastoralism accounts for over 10% of the country’s GDP,” said Kane Aliou Hamadi, a GNAP project coordinator who manages the BRACED programme in Mauritania. “Helping pastoralists get what they need is not just the right thing to do, it’s smart.”

Herder Ahmed Haibala said knowing where to find resources is critical, having spent three months roaming Mauritania’s southern Gorgol region in search of water for his ailing goats and other animals.

His 10-sq.-metre tent is as organised as it is busy, with metal teapots dangling from a black cauldron, stacked bags of sugar and rice and rolled-up straw mats in a corner.

“It’s so I can pack up and leave easily,” said Haibala, who has spent his life herding animals.

Every morning he sets off on a rented horse cart looking for boreholes and — when he is lucky — returns with several containers of water.

“My 70 animals are too weak to move so I can neither go home (to neighbouring Brakna region) or travel to Senegal. I am stuck here,” he said, chewing a bit of tobacco.

A few metres outside his tent was the carcass of a calf, half buried in the sand.

Livestock herding is an ancient activity in West Africa’s Sahel but herders have become increasingly vulnerable as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region. Erratic rainfall threatens the pastoralists’ traditional months-long seasonal migration to Mali and Senegal — known as transhumance — and their main source of income, experts said.

“Transhumance allows pastoralists to hit three birds with one stone: find pastures and water, sell their animals at the market and buy produce they need like cereal crops and wood,” Ould Taleb said.

Droughts have become so long they have forced some pastoralists to change their way of life, he said.

“Many (pastoralists) had to abandon or sell their animals this year and move to slums near Nouakchott, taking up day jobs like road(side) sellers,” said the head of the pastoralist association.

Giving up the herd is the worst thing that can happen to a pastoralist, Hamadi said. Livestock is so important for herders that community life revolves around the animals.

“Weddings, for example, will only happen in the rainy season, when animals are healthy and well fed,” he explained.

“If the weather continues like this, pastoralism could disappear.”

Fighting for resources

One particularly troubling effect of worsening drought is increased conflict between herders and farmers over dwindling water and food, local people say. The longer the drought, the more conflict arises, said Abdellahy Alwa Abdullah, a village official in R’Kiz.

“Everyone is looking for the same thing — pastures and water,” he explained over lunch, as he moulded a handful of rice mixed with cooked lamb into a ball and popped it into his mouth. “The route (from R’Kiz) to the Senegal River is full of rice fields, so it’s hard for herds to avoid stepping on them.”

When that happens, “farmers and herders sometimes fight, with knives, axes, their bare hands, whatever they can find,” the official said.

Elmouved said there are farmers and fields everywhere in the area so problems are inevitable.

“Earlier this year, two of my cows crossed into a farmer’s rice field,” he said. “We settled the matter with money but others aren’t so lucky.”

The BRACED programme, which funds climate change reporting at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has set up local committees of pastoralists, farmers and officials to resolve conflicts in the Trarza region, near the Senegalese border.

When a pastoralist and a farmer are in a dispute, the committee assesses the damage and decides on a fine for the responsible party, most often the pastoralist who trespassed on farmland, said Alwa Abdullah, who heads the conflict committee for R’Kiz village.

Each village has an animal pound where a herder’s livestock is “held hostage” until the farmer is paid the fine, he added.

“So the pastoralist always pays because he wants his animals back,” Alwa Abdullah said.

His committee has only had to settle seven disputes since the beginning of the year, he said, as “the prospect of a fine dissuades people from trespassing.”

Livestock corridors

More important than solving conflict is preventing it, said Hamadi, and that requires pastoralists having a safer and easier route to travel. “To find resources, herders need to be able to freely cross borders (to Senegal and Mali) but local authorities rarely let them through,” he said.

That is because farmers typically see pastoralists as thieves who steal food and destroy pastures, said Catherine Simonet, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a London think-tank.

“As they are always on the move and don’t necessarily own land they are hard to tax, so governments don’t like them much either,” she said.

Following successful experiences in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the BRACED project identified and negotiated with authorities several corridors in Mauritania’s Trarza region for pastoralists to use to travel to Senegal.

The routes, carefully chosen to avoid farming areas, opened in January and are about 50km long, with white and red poles every 200 metres marking the path. Now pastoralists “not only now know where to go, they do so at no cost and without crossing into farmers’ fields,” Hamadi said.

Habib Sidi, a cattle owner who grows rice and vegetables in Trarza, said the markings have made driving his animals to grass much easier.

“Before I mostly guessed where I was going and it was often too late to prevent my cows from stepping over a farmer’s field,” he said. “Now I just follow the signs, and farmers — myself included — are more relaxed because they feel their fields are protected.”

The project has secured more than 2,500km of corridors across the Sahel, Hamadi said.

Livestock map
Livestock map

‘Businessmen, not thieves’

The corridors follow newly built solar-powered wells, which herders can use for a fee of 30 ouguiyas ($0.08) per animal. They also pass livestock markets, where pastoralists can sell their cattle and buy food or medication for their herds.

Hamadi said highlighting the financial returns of pastoralism, particularly for communities the herders pass through, was key to getting mayors on board with the corridor project.

“We had to speak their language (and say) giving pastoralists access to your markets ensures a thriving local economy, not just for meat but animal-derived produce like milk and leather,” he said.

Mayors were urged to “think of (pastoralists) as businessmen, not thieves,” he added.

Mohamed Salem, the livestock ministry’s director for the Gorgol region, agreed that making herding work in an era of climate change is crucial.

“Pastoralism is what holds Mauritania’s economy together,” he said. “It’s thanks to livestock that we are self-sufficient in meat. You won’t find a single gram of red meat in the country that has been imported.”

Public perceptions of pastoralists were improving, he said. Now “we are on everyone’s map” and Mauritania has its own livestock ministry, established in 2014.

For Vatma Vall Mint Soueina, Mauritania’s minister of livestock, securing safe passage for pastoralists is the first step to make herding thrive in tougher climatic conditions.

“Mobility on its own is not enough. Our country lacks the infrastructure and services to support pastoralists,” she said.

To remedy this the BRACED programme is equipping established livestock corridors with animal clinics and fodder sales points, which herders can use for a small fee, Hamadi said.

Elmouved, who was looking to buy drugs for his sick animals, said: “You can have all the animals in the world but if they’re too skinny, they won’t fetch anything at the market.”

Power to women

Herders are gaining recognition in Mauritania but one group remains largely overlooked: pastoralist women.

Transhumance remains predominantly a male activity, with women typically staying at home to manage harvests, any remaining animals and finances, said Aminetou Mint Maouloud, who set up the country’s first association of women herders in 2014.

Women and children used to join men on their travels, local people said, but as the trips with the herds became longer and riskier they were told to stay home.

While that means more responsibilities for women in the village, it does not always translate into more power as far as men are concerned, Maouloud said at a meeting with a dozen pastoralist women in Nouakchott.

“For example, women are barely ever consulted on strategic matters such as what to do with the family herd or where to go looking for pastures,” said Maouloud.

To change that, her association has elected a council of eight women from villages around the country to lobby the government on pastoralism issues. However, Maouloud said it would take time to change views.

Sidi, the cattle owner and farmer from Trarza, said he cannot imagine women joining him when he moves his herds.

“They don’t understand animals,” he said. “I’m not against them joining in principle but not my wife.”

Mouna Mokhtar, a pastoralist from R’Kiz whose husband and cattle have been gone for six months, said she feels ready to lead a herd herself “but I don’t think (my husband) would let me because he negotiates better prices for our animals at the market.”

Instead, she set up a vegetable cooperative in 2013 with 70 women from nearby villages. They pool their rice, onion and tomato harvests and sell them to wholesale buyers. They share the profits — about $14 per woman per month — and spend the surplus on drought-resistant seeds.

Although the women’s husbands support the initiative, Mokhtar said, she was not counting too much on male support.

“It’s great that they’re encouraging us but what we need is money,” she said. “If they really wanted our help, they would let us travel with them.”

(Thomson Reuters Foundation)