THE SOURCE: “What Tragedy? Whose Commons?” by Fred Pearce, in Conservation, Fall 2012.
The Anizzah, a Bedouin tribe in eastern Jordan, once had free range of a 600-mile-wide swath of desert stretching between the Jordan and Euphrates Rivers. As nomads, the self-sufficient Anizzah herded sheep and camels, periodically shifting them to fresh pastures. Today, however, the Anizzah are “stuck behind the national boundaries of Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia,” notes author and environmental consultant Fred Pearce, and they’re getting rid of their camels, once a status marker. Still, many families manage to get their sheep to pasturage by selling them to fellow Anizzah in adjacent countries and buying the animals back at the end of the season.
Pastoralists number in the hundreds of millions worldwide; another billion people combine farming with herding on common pastures. Herders “occupy, along with forest dwellers, many of the planet’s surviving commons.” But pastoralists have gotten a bad rap, Pearce says, from environmentalists such as Garrett Hardin, who, in his 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” maintained that sharing pastures causes overgrazing and advocated private landownership.
There’s scant evidence of pastoralists inflicting permanent damage on the environment, Pearce counters; in fact, they’ve successfully managed collective pastures for generations. Farming is the real menace, plowing under native grasslands, whereas “in most places, cattle and other animals grazing the grasses and browsing the bush are, as a recent report from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put it, ‘vital for ecosystem health and productivity.’ ”
Pastoralists contribute hugely to their countries’ economies. One-third of Mongolia’s gross domestic product comes from livestock; in Morocco, one-fourth. From the alpaca of the Andes to cashmere goats in Tibet, to India’s cattle, whose dung is burned in cooking fires, grazing animals provide “food, fuel, clothing, and transportation.” Other goods gathered or produced by pastoralists include gum arabic, honey, milk, meat, and leather.
The rise of privatization endangers all of that, as in the case of the Oromo, an Ethiopian ethnic group numbering 30 million people. The cattle-herding Oromo have lost 60 percent of their pastureland in the past 50 years. Some of it became a national park, and several thousand acres more went to Dutch- and Indian-owned sugar estates. The land left to the Oromo is now overgrazed, and conflicts arise with neighboring ethnic groups in the struggle for space. Some crowded Oromo have turned to farming, smuggling, or city life—others to a violent secessionist group. Indeed, nomads pushed off their land have become prime recruits for terrorist and criminal organizations. Some members of West Africa’s Tuareg, in one startling example, have joined Al Qaeda groups in kidnapping and murdering foreigners in Mali and other countries.
“Africa is the last great stronghold of the commons,” Pearce writes: Four-fifths of its six billion acres are “not formally owned by anyone other than the state.” But that hardly secures the land for its residents. Take, for instance, Mozambique, which recently offered foreign investors 50-year leases on 15 million acres—at the fire-sale price of nine dollars an acre per year. Herders must fight for laws to protect “customary land tenure.” Their indigenous counterparts in some corners of the globe have managed to do just that. Among them are Canada’s Inuit, Scandinavia’s Sami, America’s Indians, and Australia’s Aborigines.