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Niche construction on the move: how nomadic pastoralists navigate across fast-changing social-ecological systems

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NomadicN (Niche construction on the move: how nomadic pastoralists navigate across fast-changing social-ecological systems)

Reporting period: 2016-06-01 to 2018-05-31

Nomadic pastoral livelihoods feed a considerable portion of the world's population. They are able to maintain high productivity in environments where high variability and unpredictability of natural resources hamper development of other food production systems. They could thus make rich contributions to the global pursuit of sustainability and food security. Yet, throughout the world, they are increasingly threatened by fast-changing environments. Two major processes are key in this regard: the extension of agriculture, irrigated or not, and the fragmentation of landscapes, which directly affects the mobility and adaptive capacity of pastoralists. There is a lack of understanding of the complex impacts of these transformations on nomadic pastoralists’ livelihoods, and multiple questions remain open: Are irrigated areas gained for agriculture definitively lost for pastoralists, or do they constitute, on the contrary, suitable migration areas where all needs of pastoralists and their herds can be met? How do pastoralists manage to move with their herds across densely cultivated landscapes and secure access to privately-owned resources? More broadly, how do pastoral peoples adapt to these new social and ecological settings? Answering these questions is a key challenge, as an increasing number of communities are concerned by these dynamics throughout the world, including Europe.
The aim of the NomadicN project was to address this research gap, through the precise study of the migration process at a local scale, with a methodology allowing analysis of the role of ecological and sociopolitical factors in shaping this process. We focused on one case, the Rabari nomadic shepherds from the Kachchh area, who migrate yearly with their sheep and goats across areas characterized by very different land-use patterns, in Gujarat (India).
During this project the fellow, Matthieu Salpeteur, was hosted at the CEFE laboratory (CNRS, Montpellier, France), and worked in close collaboration with Doyle McKey, the project supervisor, and other members of the lab. The project was terminated early (when the fellow obtained a permanent research position) and lasted 15 months in total.
During the preparatory phase (June-October 2016), the fellow designed the data collection protocol in relation with the project objectives and received training in related research fields, such as conceptual approaches to human-environment interactions and movement ecology. The methodology devised included the GPS tracking of herds, land-use classification from satellite images, daily phone interviews to record interactions between the shepherds and farmers, and in-depth interviews with shepherds to understand the decision-making process over the course of migration.
Data collection was then implemented in collaboration with the Gujarat Institute for Desert Ecology, an Indian research institution specialized in ecology and land-use analysis. Four migrating groups willing to participate in the study were included in the sample, and the migration of these groups was surveyed during the full migration cycle, covering three main phases (winter, summer and monsoon), from November 2016 to August 2017. Regular interviews were conducted with the shepherds to record the sociopolitical context of the migration and the logics of decision-making during migration. Data processing started as soon as the first data sets were available, with the aim of analyzing each data set on its own and in articulating the different types of data in a joint analysis.
Although the NomadicN project ended earlier than the expected date, we managed to collect full data sets and obtain some first results that allow us to understand better the migration of the Rabari nomadic shepherds and to identify some of the ecological and socio-political factors that influence the migration process. The key results and contributions from our project are:
1) The identification of differentiated resource-use strategies across migrating groups faced with similar socio-environmental constraints.
The detailed tracking of herd movements and the interviews we conducted allowed us to identify major differences in patterns of movements and of resource use across groups: some have a “specialized” strategy, focusing on key fodder resources (wheat, cotton), thus moving fast between areas of interest, while others have a “diversified” strategy, relying on various types of fodder and moving slowly across the landscape to make use of all available fodder.
2) A better understanding of the adaptive strategies implemented by nomadic herders in densely agricultural landscapes
Our project shows that the shepherds use specific components of the landscape, of which they have deep knowledge, to make fast moves between areas of interest: open areas, forests and “wastelands” are used as corridors to cross densely cultivated landscapes.
3) A better understanding of the impacts of big infrastructures (canals, highways, bridges) on the movements of nomadic herders.
Our detailed tracking provided very interesting insights on the role played by these infrastructures. It appeared that canals are strong attractors for nomadic herders, not only because of the water they supply, but also because they provide open paths that allow easy movement of the herds across agricultural areas.
Further results will emerge once the remaining analyses are finished.
These results will be communicated to scientists and policy-makers, in order to improve how nomadic pastoralists are taken into account in planning of agricultural and landscape policies.