Corridor to the future? Mauritania’s nomadic herders seek safe passage through drought

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By Zoe Tabary and Valeria Cardi

R’KIZ, Mauritania, May 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) –
C hronic 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, while other smaller bleating competitors try to push to
the front for a drink themselves.

With his goats, cows and camels, Elmouved is crossing
stretches of arid land in southern Mauritania to reach Senegal,
40 km (25 miles) 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 fifties and swathed in a long bright
blue and gold robe.

For centuries, nomadic herders in Mauritania and across the
Sahel, a vast dry region in northwestern Africa, have moved
hundreds of miles every year to find pasture for their herds.

But 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 to find
fodder and water.

This is causing conflict with farmers along the way – with
herds damaging fields and cattle raiders stealing animals – and
threatening an age-old way of life as rising poverty forces more
herders to sell up and move to cities.

However an innovative project is underway to protect the
livestock sector that accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s
economy and provides 75 percent of the population with income,
according to United Nations data.

A team of charities, researchers and local authorities are
setting up pastoralist corridors to ensure herders can safely
take livestock across national boundaries in Africa’s 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,” he told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation from his office in Nouakchott,
Mauritania’s capital.

 

SAFE PASSAGE

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

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

It then 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 (DFID).

“Pastoralism accounts for over 10 percent 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-square-metre tent is as organised as it is busy, with
metal teapots dangling from a black cauldron, bags of sugar and
rice stacked up, straw mats rolled up 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 – brings back several
containers’ worth of water to the campsite.

“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 lies the carcass of a calf,
half buried in 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 say.

“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.

But droughts have become so long they have forced some
pastoralists to abandon their way of life entirely, 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 molded a handful of rice
mixed with cooked lamb into a ball and popped it into his mouth.

“And 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 added.

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 helps to fund 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 find themselves in a
dispute, the committee assesses the damage and decides on a fine
for the guilty party – most often the pastoralist who has
trespassed on farming land, 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 he has paid the agreed fine to the
farmer, 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

But 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
(ODI), a London-based 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 added.

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 travel on their way to Senegal.

The routes – carefully chosen to avoid farming areas –
opened in January and are about 50 km long, with white and red
poles posted 200 metres apart to mark 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 also 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, bending to water a batch of yellowing cabbages.

“Now I just follow the signs, and farmers – myself included
– are more relaxed because they feel their fields are
protected.”

So far the project has secured over 2,500 km of corridors
across the Sahel, Hamadi said.

 

“BUSINESSMEN, NOT THIEVES”

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

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 explained.

“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 are 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 just 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 newly
established livestock corridors with animal clinics and fodder
sales points, which herders can access for a small fee, Hamadi
said.

Elmouved, who is now 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,
according to local people, but as the trips with the herds got
longer and riskier they were told to stay at 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, sitting behind a large
desk.

To change that, her association has elected a council of
eight women from villages around the country to lobby the
government on pastoralism issues.

But 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, shaking his head.
“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,” she
explained, as she cut chunks of meat in a metal bowl.

Instead, she set up a vegetable cooperative in 2013 with 70
women from nearby villages. Now they pool their rice, onion and
tomato harvests and sell them to wholesale buyers.

They share the profits – about 5,000 ouguiya ($14) per woman
per month – and spend the surplus on drought-resistant seeds.

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

“It’s great that they’re encouraging us but what we need is
money,” she said, surrounded by a group of women. “If they
really wanted our help, they would let us travel with them.”
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Laurie Goering
and Belinda Goldsmith
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