Raiders of the Lost Rangeland

Confession: I have been caught up in my own little world for the last few weeks.

Between work deadlines, frantic conference preparations, visits with friends and family and the start of a new quarter, I haven’t looked at the news in several weeks (except to groan at Congressional dramatics and smirk at Notre Dame’s defeat). So when I took a break from my usual commute diet of hip-hop interspersed with bluegrass music to tune in to NPR earlier this week, I was surprised to hear a story about Mali.

Mali. That’s a country I haven’t thought about in so long that I had to break out a map.

The land-locked West African nation sits mostly in the sandy Sahara Desert, the ancestral home of the nomadic Tuareg people (yes, the ones from whom that Volkswagen gets its name). And for the last year, it’s been a locked in a series of city-conquering, government-overthrowing conflicts that have finally stirred France’s otherwise-passive president (and, as of yesterday, the United Nations) into action.

If you listen to the United States’ spin on the story, you’ll quickly learn that the developed world’s intervention is necessary to eliminate another safe haven for Al-Qaeda – and, for France, to protect French citizens living abroad in the former French colony. And while that’s largely true of the present series of clashes between Islamic militant groups and the Malian army, the conflict stems from a deep-seated dispute between the Tuareg and Arab nomads and the Malian government.

For the last two decades, through an iterative process of violent skirmishes and uneasy truces, the nomadic peoples of the Sahara have sought the independence of a region of Northern Mali they call Azawad. (The involvement of Al-Qaeda is recent: In 2012, the nomads allied with Islamist groups, who helped them drive government forces out of Azawad before themselves turning on the nomadic independence movement.)

For the Tuareg, the Azawad region – whose name, roughly translated, refers to their nomadic lifestyle – would be a homeland slightly bigger than the state of Texas which, though resource poor, might provide enough area for sustainable pastoralism, a rare feat in the modern age.

Nomadic pastoralists herd livestock for their living, shifting their grazing animals from pasture to pasture as conditions change. (Pastoralism that follows seasonal movement patterns, like that of the Sami of Scandinavia or even of the cowboys of the American West, is called transhumance.) As a people, pastoralists are tough and adaptive, highly mobile and ready to shift their herds and their families with every change in weather or season. They survive on marginal land unsuitable for traditional, static farming practices, and, historically, probably practiced one of the most sustainable uses for such land. By constantly moving their herds, they avoided overgrazing and damaging any one piece of the landscape mosaic they traveled. However, such mobility required free passage across large swathes of open land.

That’s why, though historically widespread, nomadic pastoralism is increasingly confined to unsustainably small stretches of land, pinned uncomfortably between the encroaching walls of urban and agricultural development. As technology advances, so too does our ability to statically occupy farmland that requires heavy irrigation or houses that require climate control. And, as our population swells, we increasingly need to press remote scraps of land into intense service and we become increasingly territorial about the borders that surround the resources we’ve claimed as our own.

All of this spells disaster for the pastoral lifestyle, which is fundamentally incompatible with barriers and – as in Mali – sometimes crashes through them, painfully and maybe even dangerously, in the company of strange alliances exacerbated by today’s complex political climate.

Shifts in the physical climate might prove problematic as well. If – as many models predict – weather variability intensifies, threats to food security for both static and nomadic pastoralists will abound. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that reduced food security will lead to increased conflict, as has been the argument of many a policymaker and politician, though we’re still waiting on the data to convincingly support that claim.

When I was a little girl, I used to fall asleep to romantic visions of Bedouin horsemen galloping their Arabian steeds across the desert from oasis to oasis. Though the nomadic lifestyle would never have suited me, and the mental image born of reading too many Walter Farley books probably bore little resemblance to reality, it’s nice to remember that, at least at one point, there was room in the world for those lifestyles.

Holly welcomes reader comments, feedback and shepherding advice at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).