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Anthropogenic changes basically follow a model of land use that heavily relies on the patterns of dependence on grasslands and their use thereof. These changes are primarily driven by population growth and technological changes. A critical analyses of different cultures from the prehistoric life yields remarkable semblance in pastoral nomadic lifestyles even in modern times. The Sahel of Africa, a name derived from Arabic word is definitive of the shore of the desert, forms the southern most boundary of the Sahara Desert. This fringing semiarid belt stretches 500 km long from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The chronic and extensive land degradation has been highly documented with regard to the plight of the population living in this vast expanse. While some researchers attribute drought, others have conclusively pointed out that degradation is linked to land use patterns and that drought acted as a catalyst but not as a causative agent(Meyer & Turner 1991). Droughts only collapse only ecological systems that have been stressed by overuse. As regards desertification and the Sahelian lifestyle, land use pattern is overgrazing.
Ecologically, the Sahel lies in transition zone between the humid savannas in the south and the hyper arid Sahara desert which lies in the north. Precipitation in the Sahel varies between 100-200 mm in areas that border the arid northern grasslands and in the southern savannas, precipitation averages 400-600 mm. Precipitation is a product of the continental weather pattern. This pattern of rainfall; the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone(ITCZ) produces a rainfall pattern that characteristically moves from the South as it approaches the North(Meyer & Turner 1991). This characteristic movement of the rainfall swath determines the migratory patterns of insects, birds as well as large mammals. Since the quality of grasslands is directly dependent on the pattern of the movement of rainfall, it therefore becomes easier to understand the natural nomadic movement of these animals. Moreover, the patterns enable the grasslands to maintain the vigor and persistence to grazing.
Pastoral societies in the Sahel region have until recent times exercised the same nomadic strategy employed by the native ungulates. Herds of cattle are moved north as the pattern of rainfall advances and moved south in the lower grasslands that are also home to the sedentary farmers. This system has practically been operation for thousands of years(Meyer & Turner 1991). in fact until the mid 19th century both historians and anthropologists believed that mankind evolved from fishing, hunting and gathering societies before they advanced to pastoral nomadism then to sedentary agriculture. However, there is evidence that suggests that pastoral nomadism is an off shoot of sedentary agriculture in that it emerged after mankind began crop cultivation(Grigg 1974; Wright 2007). Therefore, the concept of herding animals everywhere could only have been domesticated by sedentary agriculturists. This is true because animals that lived in regions occupied by gatherers and hunters were not domesticated. In effect, the distribution of pastoral nomadism is peripheral to the distribution of sedentary agriculture.
Owing to these detrimental land use practices, the three major droughts that occurred in the last one hundred years catalyzed the Sahelian desertification. Between 1969-1979, the Sahelian drought was not taken seriously due to its severity but because of the changes that followed afterwards. Substantial changes started to be observed in nature, the size and the distribution of the behavior of the nomadic pastoral societies(Meyer & Turner 1991). The magnitude of these social changes orchestrated the desertification process. The following droughts exacerbated and expedited the degradation process had already began.
Political changes during the World war II encouraged the expansion of cultivation mainly in the southern fringes that had been used for centuries as the traditional pastures for pastoralists during the dry seasons. Political changes also led to the settling of nomads. Since sedentary lifestyle was made more preferable by the provision of permanent waters in an area where natural waters had been nothing but ephemeral on one hand and forced settlement by nationalist governments on the other, pastoral nomadism as it had existed in past centuries dramatically declined.
The popularization of cultivation as the predominant land use pattern dramatically decreased the grazing resources for the pastoralists. Settling and forced sedentary lifestyle created a phenomenon that promoted population growth for both the animals and humans. Previously and naturally regulated mechanisms such as high newborn mortality rates that limited population growth were removed. Governments ensured access to veterinary and medical services. This intricate interaction between the social and ecological domains undoubtedly increased human activity which was primarily focussed on land. The net results of the initial, catalytic changes that promoted overgrazing and consequently unrelenting overgrazing coupled to droughts intensified the desertification efforts. Additionally, medical services increased not only the fertility rates but also reduced infant mortality rates for both the human and animal population. While it can be argued that these interventions improved economic productivity and living standards, these same interventions catalyzed population growth(Shell-Duncan & Obiero 2000; Salih 1991). For animals grazing in the same areas all year round, the ecological manifestations were disastrous.
As expected the government and international aid agencies stepped in to sink boreholes as a mitigating intervention on the heels of stress of drought. Ironically, because boreholes were sunk to supply a permanent source of water that that could support the growing human and livestock population, large numbers of cattle died of hunger and yet before these boreholes were sunk only a small proportion of the cattle population succumbed to death due to thirst. Such a scarcity of resources have been the main catalysts for resource related violence(Baxter 1985). This also explains why pastoralist regions are prone to conflicts.
The Sahelian system can thus be presented as a model that consists of four components; the human society, the herbivores, the herbage that supported the herbivores ans the soil, and finally the climate. This system primarily contains ten interactive linkages between the components and each linkage has its own distinct strength. Each of these links may be involved in the core ecological processes such as predation and herbivory and depending on the context, the interactions can either portray a positive or negative feedback. However, positive feedbacks only serve to worsen the desertification process.
Thus, it can be assumed that the intrusion of political changes on the Sahelian nomadic pastoral sphere only served to divert the natural regenerating mechanism of the grasslands. This can be confirmed by the considerable persistence of the system over thousands of years. The movement of the herbivores in the Sahelian landscape still follows the natural pattern designed by the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone rainfall pattern(Meyer & Turner 1991).
Presently, nomadic movement and grazing pattern is not in congruence with the natural climatic phenomena. They have developed a strategy that seeks to harvest the higher quality grass in less predictable arid grasslands. An additional control is enshrined in the strategy to cater for the availability of water that is in turned determined with the distribution and density of the cattle as well as with the production of the grasslands. The whole situation is catalytic to the desertification process and therefore unsustainable in the long run. The isolation that existed before the onset of the ecologically unsustainable political and economic systems was destroyed leading to population growth passed passed sustainable levels. This was due to the positive feedback of the inter linkages between the components of the ecological system.
The consequences of desertification process that continues to encroach on the remaining grasslands is not only grave to the existence of the pastoralists societies but also cumulative. There is no proven way of reversing, repairing or rehabilitating such high multitude ecological destructions unless technological advances may lessen human activities like grazing. Such a possibility is uncertain with the increasing population growth. Moreover, other factors like the increasing green house gases in the atmosphere and consequent global warming and climate change call for a change of lifestyle for nomadic pastoralists.
Currently there are strategies to encourage specialization in pastoral production and development projects among the pastoral societies so as to drive the departure from the practice of specialization in the entire ecosystem. This aim is driven by the capitalistic economic theory concept of range management. If implemented such a strategy has the capacity to structurally reorganize pastoral production hence reducing pressure that currently exists on the ecosystem. As applied to herd migrations in land use, specialization embodies the choosing of ecological zones whose vegetative composition is adapted to support specialized production. Based on stratification, the division of these ecological zones are a determinant of agrostological and climatic criteria(Galaty & Saltzman 1981).
There are so many donor funded education programs in among the pastoralists communities in the Sahel region. Improving on the levels of literacy among these communities has the potential to cause the necessary paradigm shift from a pastoralist lifestyle to a sedentary agriculturalist lifestyle. With time the younger generation who are currently being enshrined in the education system will pursue other economic activities like business ventures, employment or even invest in agriculture as an alternative economic activity. This paradigm shift is necessary to divert the pastoralist communities from the inevitability of long durations of droughts that are predicted should the current rate of increase of green house gas release into the atmosphere persist.
Rich donor nations have instinctively developed a belief that the provision of food aid to pastoralist societies is a progressive venture; that it reduces poverty. However, evidence from the ground suggests otherwise; that food donations does nothing to alleviate poverty. Unless focus is placed on the political structures that are the root causes of hunger in the first place, poor countries and their poor nomadic populations living in arid and semi arid regions will forever remain dependent on food donations and donor aid. In emergency situations, the provision of food aid is welcome but in situations where the systemic root causes of hunger are not addressed, the intervention is retrogressive and does very little to promote any development(Shah 2007). When these cheap, subsidized or free food is dumped in third world countries, the farmers who strive to meet the food shortage challenges are undercut, out competed. Consequently there is loss of jobs and persistent poverty.
Pastoral vulnerability is modeled by ecological, economic and political changes that can either be local, regional or global(Noor 2005). The increase in the number of encroaching external factors, pressures, and interests on rangelands exhibit a profound negative effect on the viability and sustainability of the livelihood of pastoral communities since these encroachments constrain the ability of the pastoralists to cope with the variabilities coupled to the uncertainties inherent in the bi-physical environment from which they draw their livelihoods. In essence, the livelihoods of these communities are threatened in the wake of the myriad of transforming forces. The whole scenario calls for a paradigm shift that not only guarantees the livelihoods of these communities but ensures ecological sustainability.