‘Sedentist’ bias and the pastoral commons

‘Sedentist’ bias and the pastoral commons

Originally published in

by Ariell Ahearn, Dawn Chatty, Stefania Pondrandolfo, Matthew Porges, Cory Rodgers, Marco Solimene and Greta Semplici

States have long been at odds with pastoralists over the use and governance of land and territory. One well-documented reason for this is the stark incompatibility between growth-oriented national development agendas – which privilege agricultural and industrial land use based on intensive production strategies – and the extensive grazing practices upon which pastoralists sustain their herds.

Pastoralists are already marginalised, but this mismatch makes things worse. In countries around the world, pastoralists have been dispossessed of their lands through privatisation of communal territories, and their rangelands have been fragmented by irrigation, fencing and dam construction. Often, however, pastoralist systems of land governance are undermined even by policies and programmes that claim to support their livelihoods and accommodate their needs.

As Rahma Hassan has shown through her examination of Kenya’s Community Land Act, the state’s recent attempt at progressive land reform has nonetheless preserved many of the problems of the old system. In the new system, community land is protected, but is treated as a bounded territory registered to its title holders. This ignores the flexible methods by which pastoralists have long negotiated access. And while decision-making has been devolved to more local level, customary authority structures have been replaced by formal committees constructed in the familiar image of state institutions.

Such examples show that the dissolution of pastoralist land systems is not fully explained by antagonistic state actors and financially-motivated land-grabbing. In many contexts, these do remain the primary problem; but land tensions are also grounded in fundamentally different visions for how people and property should be organised. The dominant vision is that of fixed, formalised land ownership, meaning the scales are often tipped against pastoralists.

‘Sedentism’ vs. the pastoral commons

Most states recognise land claims based on formal titling and bundled rights. This is a ‘sedentist’ approach: it treats land as an entity that can be dissected into discrete, stable and mappable units. When someone purchases one of those units, they enjoy exclusive access to its affordances and opportunities, including the right to use its resources or build on it.

Bayanhongor province, Mongolia. Photo: Ariell Ahearn

Pastoralists operate very differently. In order to respond to highly dynamic environments and shifting resources, they require more flexible land systems that accommodate the strategic movement of herds. In contrast to the “property regimes” that are created through formal land legislation, pastoralists govern their lands through what Mark Moritz and Roy Behnke call “regimes of resource acquisition”. This usually involves some form of ‘commons’, wherein people and livestock can access pasture, water or other resources upon arrival in a new area. Unlike formal private property regimes, access rights are negotiable and often shift. Ownership is not based on clearly delineated territorial boundaries and, as such, cannot easily be documented or mapped.

This, along with the impermanence of nomadic infrastructure, often leaves pastoralists vulnerable to claims of terra nullius: their space can be labelled as if it’s up for grabs. Even in places where pastoral land governance has long existed alongside—or integrated within—state institutions, the lack of formal legal recognition of these arrangements leaves people vulnerable to dispossession.

Undargaa Sandagsuren’s research in Mongolia shows how this has played out in the Herlen Bayan-Ulaan (HBU) Reserve Pasture Area. Despite a long history of state and community co-management, the central government has enacted a more exclusive form of management in order to pursue its “alternative rural development” objectives. This results in the de facto dismantling of the older co-management arrangements and the dissolution of people’s claims to residency and resource access.

‘Fortress’ conservation

The sedentist approach also manifests in conservation policies. Much as sedentist land frameworks rely on bounded units of property, sedentist ecology treats conservation as an intervention that can be applied on bounded units of protected territory.

This ‘fortress’ approach to conservation ignores the ecological role of grazing in many ecosystems and justifies their expulsion from customary grazing lands.

Rashmi Singh provides one such case study of conservation-induced displacement, caused by a grazing ban implemented in the Sikkim region of the Indian Eastern Himalaya. Importantly, the resulting evictions were applied and experienced differently within pastoralist communities. While some elite pastoralists have been able to successfully resist the ban and negotiate for re-entry to their grazing areas, families with small herds sold their livestock and abandoned herding. Some turned to less sustainable agricultural practices, which created new human-wildlife conflicts. This case study shows how conservation based on ‘sedentist ecology’ can cause social divisions as well as new conservation challenges.

Reasons to take ‘sedentism’ seriously

One may argue that ‘sedentism’ is just another label for long-standing state discrimination against pastoralists and other mobile peoples.

However, there are important differences. Anti-nomadism is often an overt ideology that can be directly confronted. Sedentism, on the other hand, is not explicitly opposed to nomadic livelihoods. The problem is that it pre-supposes structures and paradigms that are mismatched with nomadic praxis—such as the treatment of land as bounded territories with bundled rights.

Moreover, sedentism is impressively (and ironically) mobile. While it has long characterised imperial statecraft and modernist nation-building, it has also leached into structures where it clearly shouldn’t belong. One example is the indigenous rights movement, where claims to autochthony are often based on a rooted idea of territorial belonging. With few exceptions, mobile peoples have often been denied claims to their indigenous rights.

Looking forward to Dana+20

Looking ahead, many of these issues will figure into the conversations that take place at the Dana+20 summit in Jordan. The event in Wadi Dana will bring together pastoralist delegates from across different continents to discuss shared challenges associated with global development and conservation agendas, including the handling of land governance and resources management.

The first Dana Conference in 2002 saw five days of discussion and negotiation by scholars, practitioners and activists converge on the Dana Declaration, which set out five key principles to recognise mobile peoples as rights holders and equal participants in conservation policy and decision making. Ten years later, the Dana+10 summit facilitated greater participation by pastoralists themselves. Together, they generated a statement that was read at the Rio+20 Summit, and which recommended a handful of critical interventions by state and international actors that would allow mobile peoples not only to thrive, but to contribute to global transitions toward a more sustainable future.

Later this year, the Dana+20 event will take stock of achievements since the original 2002 Declaration entered soft law. It will also consider the evolving threats to mobile peoples’ rights and land claims.


More information

Re-Imagining Development for Mobile and Marginalised Peoples (ReDeMP) is a collaborative research project taking a cross-regional approach to the study of the ‘development encounters’ of mobile peoples. Based on our researchers’ long-term engagements with mobile peoples in Kenya, Lebanon, Mongolia, Italy, and Mauritania, we have attempted to construct a conceptual framework for sedentism as it manifests in development and conservation policies.

To generate further critical perspectives and to expand the scope of analysis, the ReDeMP team organised an online workshop on 10 and 11 January 2022, bringing together scholars to contribute lessons about sedentism from the contexts where they work. We received 19 papers, four of which are discussed here. We thank all participants for their thoughtful contributions, discussion and feedback. Download the full programme of the workshop to see the list of presenters and titles of their papers.


This blog post first appeared on the PASTRES website. Read the original post.