Is the tradition of cattle herding truly outdated? This age-old practice, deeply entrenched in human culture and economy has for centuries, provided us with livelihoods, food and raw materials. While modern methods have gradually taken over various aspects of agriculture and livestock raising, it’s important to understand whether cattle herding is indeed a relic of the past or does it still hold relevance in our rapidly evolving world.
Contrary to the discord seen in the farmer-herder feud in Nigeria, the notion that the practice of cattle herding around the world has lost its relevance warrants a revision.
It’s essential to note that herding, a cornerstone of Fulani culture, is an age-old process that should be valued rather than disdained. A point outlined by our esteemed United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) quite recently. The practice of cattle herding typically involves Fulani herdsmen moving livestock vast distances to access fresh grazing locales. Landscape that is often unfarmed and densely populated with scrub and grass serves as sustenance for the cattle. These journeys can take weeks or even months, encompassing extensive mileage.
Every year, cattle herders embark on a calculated journey, guiding their cattle from arid Northern regions to more verdant central and southern territories during the dry season and retracing their steps when the rain replenishes the North. It’s an enterprise demanding meticulous planning and a profound understanding of the routes and available resources. Completing this movement involves navigating varying landscapes, including farmlands and weather-induced challenges among others. For the Fulani community, cattle hold a treasured role as suppliers of milk, with their slaughter for meat being an infrequent occurrence.
Despite the ancestral tradition, the perpetual conflict between farmers and herders remains a troubling issue for Nigeria. As climatic changes and agricultural expansion continue to fuel competition for diminishing arable land and water resources, the contention between Fulani herders and farmers persists. Socio-economic pressures, ethnic disparities, religious divergence, political dynamics, and security issues all add to the intense friction. This escalating feud has bred violence, triggering significant losses and forcing mass displacements. It’s critical, therefore, to establish interventions encompassing resource management, reconciliation within communities, and the implementation of fair and equitable policies.
Nonetheless, it does not warrant educators, policymakers and political leaders to keep misleading the public by saying herding is outdated. It is not. We can agree that it has evolved, but it is still in practice across the world. Just last month, December 2023, UNESCO inscribed seasonal transhumance, a form of herding, in ten European countries as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The countries are Albania, Andorra, Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania and Spain.
With transhumance, herders follow a seasonal migration pattern, usually moving to cool highlands in the summer and warmer lowlands in the winter. Similar to our Fulani nomads, these herders move between the same two locations, where they have permanent settlements. One can find online videos of these herders being celebrated whenever they pass through towns and villages with their animals in droves. On the contrary, many Nigerians will find it hard to believe that the seasonal livestock movement is celebrated and preserved for its cultural and environmental significance in Europe. This is the result of misinformation.
Another form of herding that still exists in the Western World is the traditional droving in Australia. It was once the backbone of the rural economy, especially during the drought when cattle must be moved to areas with better feed and water. Unlike Nigeria, the Australian droving is now romanticised as part of the country’s cultural heritage, with its iconic stock routes being a symbol of rural life and history. Similarly, in Argentina, the gaucho culture epitomises the country’s version of herders. Gauchos are similar to the North American cowboy. They historically manage vast herds of cattle on the grasslands. Despite of the Argentine pastoral system into ranching operations, the gaucho remains a cultural icon, with traditional skills and knowledge still valued in rural areas.
Coming into Africa, the Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana offer valuable lessons for Nigeria in maintaining its herding culture. Herding in Kenya is not just an economic activity but a cultural identity, with communities practising nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock rearing adapted to the challenges of arid and semi-arid regions. The key to their approach is the integration of traditional knowledge with modern sustainable practices, addressing challenges like climate change, land degradation, and resource competition.
Community-based conflict resolution, land use management, and climate adaptation strategies, such as water harvesting and drought-resistant pastoral systems, are pivotal. Nigeria can draw from this by encouraging sustainable herding practices, enhancing community engagement, and implementing policies that support pastoralists’ livelihoods while ensuring environmental conservation. Such a holistic approach would help Nigeria maintain its herding culture, vital for the socio-economic fabric of many communities, while addressing contemporary challenges.
It’s indispensable to recognize how the relentless urban expansion and technological strides in our country have led some to perceive traditional herding as antiquated, colliding with modern development plans. This belief is galvanized further by ongoing confrontations between farmers and herders that seem to paint herding as an instigator of unsteadiness and doubt. However, remember, this viewpoint is not confined only to Nigeria.
We shouldn’t hastily abandon our traditions when suitable global practices can provide solutions to the current disputes. Hence, it’s crucial that the dialogue continues to modernize and assimilate pastoral methods into our country’s economic structure in a sustainable manner.
The recognition of transhumant herders as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO underscores the cultural and ecological significance of herding. Today’s challenge lies in balancing our reverence for this heritage while staying aligned with modern demands.