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Nomadic Life-styles PDF Print E-mail

Millennium Development Goals
Human Rights
Governments and Pastoralism
International Aid


Fringing the deserts are the arid dryland environments that are home to nomadic pastoralists. In such drought-prone lands nomadic populations need to be able to rely on the availability of water and vegetation when passing through an area and so ecological sustainability becomes a necessity for transhumance.

IMG_0931Pastoralism is a subsistence strategy and one that is compatible with wildlife. Moving herds from one place to another is a sustainable and ecological way of managing these fragile marginal areas and allows the wild grasses and shrubs to re-grow; in exchange the animals provide the families with milk, meat, wool and hides.

While pastoralists makes up the biggest group within nomadic society, nomadic life-styles also include those moving seasonally along certain routes and those that are engaged in trading, hunting and fishing. The women and children are often semi-nomadic and women are therefore often engaged in agriculture as well as supplmenting their income often through crafts.

Of interest is the 2007 Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists

It is important to note that nomadic and pastoralist lifestyles are still a way of life in Central Asia, Iran, India  and of course in the far northern countries like Mongolia, Sweden, Norway, Finland etc and that related to these are very important cultural and spiritual values as well as a deep sense of reverence for nature, its seasonal cycles and the need for an inherently simple but sustainable life-style; a life-style that honoured bio-diversity and natural resources like water and wood as family groups would return year after year to certain areas  and they therefore needed to be sure that it could sustain their families and livestock. A nomadic lifestyle can also be related to people who are on the move for trade reasons, e.g. trade-nomads along the Niger river, the caravans in the Sahara as well as those along the famous silk-routes. In order to sustain themselves along the way many travelled with life-stock as this would give them nourishment along their route and which at the same time they could sell when passing through the different resting and drinking halts and at markets-places .

An eccellent article by Juhan Munves related to Sami Culture and Reindeer Herding in Finland, Norway and Sweden > article


Pastoralism is one of the oldest forms of organised human society. However, this way of life is increasingly under threat and not only because of encroaching desertification and the effects of a voracious development. Today’s political, legal, social and economic policies and laws are not taking into consideration the needs of nomadic populations.

Many nomadic communities today are experiencing a new form of colonialisation. Foreign powers in the guise of foreign or multinational corporations, mainly from the industrialised nations, arrive with licensing agreements to extract natural resources. For example, the uranium mines in the Aïr region of Niger were mined by the French company Cogema. Cogema employed local people as labour but nor they nor the environment were adequately protected. Today many of those who worked there, and those still living there, are experiencing major health problems. Uranium is radioactive and a chemical toxin and the low-waged people who worked there did not have laws to protect them. The area is polluted and the water quality affected.

In cases like these governments leasing such sites need to make sure that companies wanting licences operate on the recommendations of the International Committee on Radiological Protection, and monitor to ensure that these standards are adhered to and that health and environmental remediation is provided in order to redress any damage and pollution which has arisen due to the exploitation of such sites.

Of note is that 20 countries in Africa and the Middle East and 7 countries in Asia have desert biomass and well over 50% of these countries have oil/gas reserves. While deserts may be inhospitable, the discovery of natural resources strengthens their role of being of strategic and economic importance and they will be of interest to the extractive industries. It is crucial that governments strengthen their legislation in order to safeguard their environment and their citizen by requesting that a number of impact assessments be carried.

Link to Impact Assessments Human Rights and Impact Assessments

Millennium Development Goals still to come


It is hoped that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the World Declaration on Education for All (UNESCO) and the statement within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “everyone has a right to education” will become a reality for nomadic populations everywhere as currently educational facilities for nomad children are sparse and literacy rates are at under 10%. The fact that they move and live in remote areas, far away from the centres of power, makes it very difficult for their voices to be heard and this adds to their emargination.

Further attention and care should also be paid to culture, language and writing, e.g. Tamashek, this being one of the many living languages with its own alphabet. Technological advances, the predominance of English, and the use of computers might further erode the survival of many important languages that are still being spoken by many today. Educational programmes therefore might also need to take into consideration the aspects of language, of alphabet, of culture and the way education is delivered, as individuals in different cultures make a different use of the regions of the brain and information is being stored and used, as the neurons of the brain have been activated in a completely different manner from those living in industrialised cultures. With the 2nd goal of the MDGs “to bring primary school education to all boys and girls” care should be taken not to alienate children from this important traditional knowledge and add reading, writing and mathematical skills to an innate way of keen observation and deduction.

More >

Human Rights



Because of their mobility, of living in remote areas, nomadic communities are also those who are least informed about their human rights and any educational options might need to include adult classes and human rights education. It is important for nomadic pastoralists to see  themselves in a bigger context to understand their needs, articulate these and claim their rights as per international treaties and as ratified by their own country.

More > > >link to Human Rights section


Rainfall and soil quality will determine if some agricultural activity is possible. Women are the ones tending the land while the men go out herding. It is not uncommon for women to have a 100hr working week fetching water, searching for firewood, education and looking after their children and also engaging in handcraft activity in order to be able to buy basic necessities. They often fall pregnant within a year after giving birth and have no time in between births to recuperate some strength. The average life-span of people in the Sahel area is 43 years.

Governments and Pastoralism

The relationship between pastoralist communities and their governments is a difficult one. Governments often see pastoralists as living a primitive life and expects them to catch up with mainstream society. They do not understand that nomadic people have a unique culture and that this life is most often their preferred choice. Government policies are geared to meet the needs of mainstream society and are often unsympathetic to their minorities. It also needs to be pointed out that most of these dryland environments are situated in nations experiencing great poverty. The African Sahel areas are an example and affecting the world’s poorest nations.

International Aid

Nomadic communities are also disadvantaged when it comes to aid and emergencies. Pastoralists live in family clusters and sometimes hours away from any roads. Aid is delivered by transportable means. It takes too much time, manpower and means to bring aid to very remote areas. There is clearly a need to collaborate with local NGOs. These are set-up by nomadic communities themselves that know more than anybody else the terrain, needs, cultural context and location of nomad settlements. However, many of these local NGOs do not have the language skills, technology, know-how or the means to operate within a national or international context and their strength is their local know-how. As such they need to build strategic partnerships with organisations and institutions operating in a more international setting.

Many organisations and institutions have dedicated resources to developing projects and aid-packages. Many successful projects have been undertaken and the Sahel today has more tree-cover than 30 years ago. Big environmental and development schemes were initiated, only to flounder years later, as important aspects had not been taken into consideration: in many cases local populations were not consulted, their traditional methods were not taken into consideration, nor their cultural contexts respected. Dialogue and cooperation are crucial elements and often the most successful way forward is to incorporate the best of the traditional methods and local knowledge with elements and technologies of the developed world.

Technological advances have allowed databases to be compiled of traditional sustainable methods used in other such biomes in other parts of the world and this exchange has proved useful. Local populations recognised elements of their own traditions and cultures and were more willing to try new ways. These are all opportunities for learning new ways and methods, new techniques and technologies. Many environmental projects included education and training, and this often led to employment as many agencies and NGOs are keen to hand over these projects to the people for whom they were meant. In order to do so they need to know that the know-how and training has been passed on for these projects to survive and even be replicated.

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