Droughts have wrought severe consequences in recent years, including in 2011-2012, when a major drought left some 18 million people in the region at risk of hunger.
Practices such as rotational grazing, land and tree regeneration, intercropping, and agroforestry can help ensure herders continue to feed their animals while avoiding conflict with farmers over shrinking productive lands, experts say.
A look at nomadism
Nomadic pastoralism remains an essential part of life in the Sahel, where more than 60 percent of the population is involved in livestock farming.
“In the Sahel, pastoralists are first and foremost mobile,” said Jonathan Davies, the Global Drylands Initiative coordinator for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “So it goes without saying that the thing that defines most pastoralists throughout all of Africa is the herd movements.
“But there’s this huge misunderstanding and prejudice. Many governments and development agencies still see mobility as a problem they need to stop rather than… the most rational management strategy in a highly variable climate,” said Davies.
He explained that moving between areas of good rainfall and vegetation allows pastoralists to manage such variability, particularly in very dry countries like Niger, where land productivity is low.
“For all pastoralists, some sort of crop-agriculture or fodder production is possible, but that is not to say it is desirable,” said Davies. “The scarcer the water, the less you want to waste it oncultivating a tiny oasis.”
Taking away the ability for pastoralists to move could kill off their entire herds if faced with a period of drought, Davies noted.
But René Alphonse, the head of Mali’s meat producers, said that the nomadism was increasingly becoming hazardous.
“Every year in Mali there are at least 10 deaths due to farmer-herder conflicts in villages along the Mali-Guinea border. The future of pastoralism worries me if no steps are taken,” he told IRIN.
Sustainable land use
There are, however, ways to make use of limited land.
Farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is one such method that encourages the regeneration of tree varieties that serve multiple purposes.
“Many species [of trees] have the ability to sprout from stumps and roots after they are cut down - even in dry areas like the Sahel,” said Wondimu Kenea, the West Africa regional food security adviser for World Vision. “Globally, millions of hectares of seemingly treeless farm and grazing lands still contain living tree stumps with the ability to sprout new shoots.”
With FMNR, farmers decide how many and which stumps they will allow to regenerate each year, and how many stems are needed on each stump. Excess stems can then be cut off and used as fodder or firewood.
Kenea said that small-scale farmers and agro-pastoralists in Niger, Mali, Ghana and Senegal have benefitted from FMNR. People and animals can still use some of the trees, while the rest are given the chance to mature.
“[They] have been able to regenerate trees in their farm [and] improve soil fertility, farm productivity and reliable access to fodder for their livestock, as the trees that are rehabilitated are perennials that can be used all year round,” he said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends an approach known as participatory rangeland management (PRM), in which all rangeland users in a community come together to map out their resources and decide the best and most sustainable land management options.
This includes deciding where and when certain areas will be reserved for agricultural and pastoral activities, and developing and creating access to watering points. The goal is to reduce conflict between farmers and herders and make better use of the land.
Another method is to use fodder banks - concentrated areas of grazing land and shrubs that are created and managed by pastoralists near their homesteads, in order to reduce their reliance on mobile grazing. While this method is popular in East Africa, it is not yet a common practice in the Sahel, said Antoine Kalinganire, the Sahel node coordinator and drylands systems regional coordinator for ICRAF in West Africa.
“You have a few cases… when you have herders who take sheep and enclose and fatten them and then sell them for big feasts,” Kalinganire said, explaining that the method is possible only with few animals.
But most pastoralists in the Sahel migrate with thousands of animals. “You can't just tell them to stop moving,” he said.
Planting fodder banks also requires time and investment many farmers are reluctant to spend. Most trees take a minimum of three to four years to yield benefits and need to be protected by fencing while young.
Pastoralists are unlikely to invest in fodder banks, say experts.
“Only if they are sure they can fatten their livestock, sell their milk and buy the grains they need, and [only if they are sure] that all of it is more economically efficient, will pastoralists grow their own fodder crops,” said IUCN’s Davies. “And of course, if the markets are dismal, that’s not an option. If the markets are too unpredictable, then it just exposes them to new risks.”
Another problem is that fodder banks require land rights, something which most pastoralists do not have.
Experts say that perhaps the best method is to intercrop - integrating certain grass or tree species into annual food crops. This can help maintain vegetative soil cover all throughout the year and improve soil nutrients, structure and water infiltration, while providing food, fodder and firewood once the crops are harvested.
Other intercropping methods include farm-fallow systems, in which land is rested from cultivation for a time and allowed to produce fodder or crop residues for animals.
Looking to agro-pastoralists
When it comes to land-use management, a good strategy may be to look at the practices of agro-pastoralists, those who both grow crops and raise small herds of animals.
“In general, I would say agro-pastoralists are very intelligent,” Davies said. “They have to be to survive. So they grow the best crops that are available to them, ones that produce food for themselves, but also crops that can provide residues that livestock can use.”
But even agro-pastoralists must rely on rangeland grazing and non-cultivated fodder during the dry season. “I see little opportunity to increase levels of crop residues to adequate levels to zero-graze livestock, except through irrigation,” said Adrian Cullis, a drylands and food security expert at FAO.
In addition, irrigation requires a financial investment that most agro-pastoralists cannot afford. The World Bank is now urging more large-scale investments in irrigation projects in the Sahel to reduce climate change risks for pastoralists as well as to ease competition with farmers.
“But even then [with better irrigation], I imagine that when it rains, these irrigated farmers would turn their livestock out on the rangelands to benefit from the seasonal grazing,” Cullis said.