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Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2020-09-30


The PASTRES project asks: What lessons can we learn for global challenges from pastoral systems responding to uncertainty? Together with local partners and six PhD students, we are working in pastoral areas across three continents: China (Amdo Tibet), Ethiopia (Borana), India (Gujarat), Italy (Sardinia), Kenya (Isiolo district) and Tunisia (Tataouine area). In each case, we are exploring responses to uncertainty across three areas: environment/resources, markets/commodities and institutions/governance.

Pastoral systems the world over are undergoing rapid change. As pastoral economies become linked into globalised networks of trade, as resources in low population density pastoral areas become valued by external investors (whether land, minerals, oil or gas), and as processes of privatisation, individualisation, sedentarisaton and territorialisation extend - new social, economic and political configurations emerge in pastoral areas. With such changes, long-standing management and governance systems for responding to uncertainty must change too.

New conversations on uncertainty

Uncertainty – where we don’t know the array of outcomes or the probability of them happening – characterises most complex systems. While pastoralists have long learned to live with and from uncertainty, too often policies assume we are dealing with risk, where outcomes and their probabilities are known, and control systems evolve accordingly.

For example, many modelling approaches ignore uncertainties, constraining thinking and response options. Equally insurance, legal liability and early warning systems are all premised on risk management, where probabilities of outcomes are assumed. Such approaches can be dangerous when uncertain events emerge, dramatically refashioning system dynamics. Embracing uncertainty – and indeed ignorance, where we don’t know what we don’t know – is therefore essential.

This is especially so in the context of complex systems affected by uncertain events. Derivatives markets in financial systems, the impacts of climate change, globalisation of trade, sudden emergence of novel disease agents, such as COVID-19, and the interconnections of people and economies through migration all have this effect.

Learning lessons from the pastoral ‘margins’, are fostering a conversation with other policy domains where uncertainty is pervasive – and where existing institutions, analytical tools, legal frameworks and governance systems are poorly equipped to respond to these growing degrees of uncertainty, as they have been developed for contexts of stability. Think the global financial crash, the COVID-19 pandemic or mass migration to Europe.

Through interactions with people working in different areas, whether working on banking, climate change, insurance, critical infrastructure or public health, we are exploring what lessons can be learned from pastoral areas for wider societal responses to uncertainty across domains. Through our 2019 symposium, interactions between quite different fields are already opening up provocative discussions about responding to uncertainty in today’s turbulent world, informed by pastoralists’ experiences across our sites.

Six contrasting pastoral systems

We are working in six sites, each characterised by different types of uncertainty.

In Amdo Tibet in China, rapid economic growth, growing demand for animal products by Chinese consumers and plans for long-distance mobility and trade are transforming the economic landscape for pastoralists. This is refashioning governance arrangements, and our studies are exploring how new hybrid forms emerge – combining state, community and religious institutions – to respond to uncertainties around land control.

In Borana in southern Ethiopia, responses to environmental and economic change have resulted in new approaches to livelihood adaptation among pastoral populations. Our research is tracking how pastoralists are combining livestock production with cropping and off-farm activities, as new challenges are faced. The availability of index-linked livestock insurance in the area offers new opportunities for some, and the research is evaluating who takes up insurance, who doesn’t and why.

In Kutch, Gujarat in India mobile pastoralists are increasingly constrained due to urbanisation, the expansion of crop lands and industrial developments. The research is exploring how understandings and emotional responses to mobility is shared by different pastoralists, and how the navigate mobility to maintain their flocks in the face of increasing uncertainty.

In Sardinia, Italy, pastoralism traditionally relies importantly on the strong global demand for Pecorino cheese. The dependence on global export markets has been recently exacerbated by volatile markets, with the collapse of prices affecting milk and cheese production. How different pastoralists in mountainous, hilly and plains areas respond to market changes is the focus of research, with a focus on market networks as a route to addressing uncertainty.

In Isiolo in Kenya, a long-term process of urbanisation and settlement is combining with new with road and energy investments and the expansion of wildlife conservancies. This is transforming pastoralism in the area. Our research is analysing how coping strategies are changing since the 1970s, and in particular the role of local community solidarity and redistributive practices in helping people through uncertain times.

In southern Tunisia, our research is examining how long-term migration out of the area has affected pastoral production, and how different types of absentee livestock ownership affects processes of social differentiation and class formation in the area. With increasing inequality, uncertainties are experienced differently by different groups, across class, age and gender.

Four objectives

The PASTRES project therefore has four interlinked objectives:

• Learning from these six pastoral areas to develop a novel cross-disciplinary theoretical framework for examining the relationships between uncertainty, resilience and development in the context of rapid change.
• Exploring responses to uncertainties in six contrasting pastoral settings in diverse geographical and agro-ecological settings – across highlands, drylands and islands – and examining the implications for land control, coping and moral economy responses, mobility and migration and processes of social differentiation.
• Facilitating a dialogue between marginal pastoral areas and other domains (from banking to insurance to climate to pandemics to migration policy) around fundamental challenges of risk and uncertainty, drawing out wider lessons for society.
• Developing the capacities of a team of PhD researchers, post-docs and country counterparts in six countries for policy-engaged, cross-disciplinary research and analysis, and developing a wider network across fields, all exploring uncertainty and resilience.
Phase 1: Establishment - October 2017 - April 2018. The initial phase involved project establishment, including recruitment of staff, exploring partnerships, building a mailing list and the setting up of an on-line web space, blog, Twitter etc ( To date, multiple blogs have been published, and we have an active Twitter and Instagram account, documenting stories from the field, alongside wider commentary.

Phase 2: Launch and student recruitment - May 2018-September 2018. We had a launch event at Sussex in May 2018, and was linked to a workshop for the core team and country partners, when ToRs and plans for student recruitment were drawn up. The main launch was combined with a number of other seminars/presentations around Europe to introduce the project and build a network linked to it. Following global advertisement for the PhD places plus a call for project affiliates, we interviewed and selected candidates, recruiting in the end six PhD students

Phase 3: Scoping - October 2018-January 2019. During this period, the PI and PDR visited the field sites in China, Italy and Kenya and met with the students. Background review work on pastoral practices and regional experiences was undertaken by the PDR and a major review of the literature on uncertainty was undertaken by the PI. These have subsequently been published as open access Working Papers. An overview article of the project was also drafted and has since been published by the open access journal, Pastoralism. PASTRES PDR, Michele Nori, continued to work on his studies on migration and herding labour in Mediterranean Europe, initially supported by his Marie Curie Fellowship at EUI, and a number of papers were produced. Additionally, our China country partner, wrote up work that PASTRES supported in Tibet, subsequently published in two journal articles (Ecology and Society, Rural Studies). During this period, further seminars were held in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK, led by the PI and PDR.

Phase 4: Student training and uncertainty symposium - February 2019-September 2019. The six students arrived at Sussex in January/February 2020 and undertook and intensive period of training, introducing key concepts and methods, as well as specialist training in visual methods, research ethics and writing skills. This was led by the PI together with the PDR and other guest speakers. During this period a PASTRES seminar series was held at IDS, Sussex, with recordings of each shared widely. By July 2019, research outline papers were produced and presented by all six students in a public workshop for review. During this period, the PASTRES team was involved in organising and attending the Politics of Uncertainty symposium, co-hosted with the ESRC STEPS Centre. This resulted in a set of blogs, podcasts, videos and the plans for a book manuscript (to be published in August 2020). The PI was awarded the Esther Boserup prize for research on development, and gave the prize lecture in Copenhagen in June 2019, and the PASTRES group undertook a field visit to Wales to explore pastoralism in the UK during July.

Phase 5: Fieldwork - October 2019 - ongoing. Following approval of their research outlines and ethics approval from the University of Sussex, all students left the UK for their field sites. A series of video/blog posts were published featuring each of the researchers and their projects. During this period, the book The Politics of Uncertainty was finalised and submitted to the publishers (Routledge). Three additional post-doc affiliates joined the team, based at EUI, Firenze (with funding from the Max Weber fellowship scheme); the Stockholm Resilience Centre, University of Stockholm (with early career funding from the Swedish Research Council) and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center at the University of Maryland (with funding from SESYNC). PASTRES has taken the initiative to convene a celebration of 50 years of research on pastoralism at IDS during 2020, and this has resulted in a bibliography, and a special archive issue of the IDS Bulletin will be published in May 2020, along with the online course developed during the PASTRES student training in From January to the present the fieldwork has been seriously disrupted by the spread of COVID-19 and restrictions on movement/quarantine measures. We are hoping that fieldwork will recommence in all sites in the middle of the year. Students will return to IDS, Sussex in October 2020 for a series of workshops, and will be begin to work on their theses. During this period we will begin collective work across sites, before a period of follow-up fieldwork during 2021.
Our initial objectives to facilitate a conversation between our studies on pastoralism is already being achieved, with exciting results, which are challenging our understandings of uncertainty in a range of areas.

Our co-hosted 2019 symposium was an important milestone ( This offered the opportunity to engage with aa wide range of scholars and practitioners working on the theme of uncertainty from different perspectives. At the symposium we had anthropologists, biologists, economists, engineers, geographers, historians, mathematicians, psychologists, religious studies specialists, science studies scholars, sociologists and others debating our understandings of uncertainty, using case studies ranging from banking to migration to crime to religion. While coming from different places and with different experiences and academic framings, the conversations were rich and informative, leading to a wide range of future collaborations. As an input to the event, the PASTRES framing paper (Scoones 2019) was circulated, along with a series of scene-setting blogs.

For PASTRES this was a key moment to seek the collaborations necessary to link our research on pastoralism in 6 countries to wider debates. Linked to the publication of what will be a path-breaking and timely book (Scoones and Stirling, forthcoming) emerging from the symposium, a number of initiatives have emerged around thinking about uncertainty in pandemics (Melissa Leach/Hayley MacGregor, Sussex), insurance (Leigh Johnson, Oregon University), banking/finance (Leon Wansleben MPI, Koln), around social protection (Matteo Caravani, WFP), 'fragile states' (Peer Schouten, DIIS, Copenhagen), in relation to migration policy (Anna Triandafyllidou, Ryerson/EUI), each of which are resulting in a series of further engagements and writing efforts, which will unfold over the coming year or so. We hope these conversations will lead to a wider debate about uncertainty, informed by pastoral practice globally.

In relation to COVID-19, a recent blog, has highlighted some of the key lessons around the importance of multiple knowledges, experiencing time, reliable systems and collective solidarities ( and has gained attention way beyond our original research community. We are hoping to use our fieldwork in our 6 sites to move this towards a journal article.

Our work on visual methods and ethnography as part of our case studies offers an area that we think will also push the boundaries of understandings on uncertainty. This represents a novel methodological and analytical contribution to the study of pastoralism and uncertainty, pushing our understandings about the multiple dimensions of uncertainty - knowledge-focused, material, practice-based, emotional, embodied and experiential - significantly further.