Pokot Pastoralism: Environmental Change and Socio-Economic Transformation in North-West Kenya by Hauke-Peter Vehrs is the first book in Future Rural Africa, a new series from James Currey. Dr Vehrs shares insight into his research process for this highly anticipated new book.
As current research with pastoral groups suggests, walking through and experiencing pastoral landscapes is a central method of anthropological research with pastoralists. Even if this method does not directly address all processes of historical landscape formation, it is one of the few methods that can provide a deeper understanding of pastoral livelihoods and pastoral landscapes in which environmental changes take place.
My research for Pokot Pastoralism began with an interest in invasive plant species (particularly Prosopis juliflora and Dodonaea viscosa) and their rapid spread in the region north of Lake Baringo in Kenya. While I quickly recognised that invasive ecological processes are a very localized phenomena (at least the cases described here), and represent only some aspects in a much larger picture of all the environmental developments in the region, I began to explore historical changes in the landscape. Instead of the rapid change of ecological invasions, the slow and gradual shifts of the last two centuries turned out to be much more significant, being reflected in an extensive bush encroachment (mainly acacia species, such as Vachellia reficiens, Vachellia nubica and Senegalia mellifera). In the 19th century, the region north of Lake Baringo was still strongly characterized by a grass-dominated savanna, which has changed over time to become bush-dominated. The reasons behind this change are manifold and more complex than some colonial sources suggest; stating factors such as overgrazing of the region’s forage resources by pastoral groups as a central explanation for the degradation processes.
This view, however, ignores other key features of environmental change – particularly those influences that have disappeared over time. In the case of the grass savanna of northern Baringo, there are two processes in particular: the local extinction (defaunation) of almost all larger wildlife species, especially large herds of elephants, and the absence of fire that was often used for the regeneration of grass vegetation, especially until the mid-20th century. Defaunation processes were initiated in the region primarily through big game hunting and resulted in the elimination of all larger wildlife in the region until the 1940s. The removal of these important landscape agents and sustainers of an open savanna stimulated the incremental bush encroachment, which was reinforced by the considerable decay of the use of fire for grazing management. With less combustible material and less intense fire, and with increased human settlements in the region, fire use declined and ceased to have the detrimental effects on young shrub vegetation that the former intense burning previously had. The removal of these influences was fundamental to the landscape transformation that occurred in the pastoral landscape of northern Baringo and is more evident today than ever before.
Returning to the methodological consideration of walking with pastoralists, specifically the three-week walking trip I embarked on with two good friends (my assistant and age-set brother Kudee, and my neighbour Kortin) had a great impact on learning more about the pastoral landscape. Meeting people along the way and discussing current issues, as well as looking back at the past 50-60 years with the elderly people we met along the way and absorbing their perceptions and explanations of landscape change. This intensive examination of ‘the field’ on foot made it possible to find other reasons, apart from the given explanatory patterns, which could be complemented at a later stage with further materials from the archive and literature reviews. The rather specific participatory observation method of walking with pastoralists offers a deep insight into the diversity of the pastoral landscape, the fragmentation processes – ecological as well as political and economic – that disaggregate the pastoral landscapes, as well as the profound knowledge that pastoral societies hold about a changing environment and the possibilities to shape their own livelihoods according to this change.
What was most surprising for me during my research was that the initially so prominent ecological invasions turned out to have a rather limited impact on pastoral groups, and that the extent of the bush encroachment, its vast impact and the story behind the degradation narrative, was fascinating. Moreover, the pastoral perspectives on this encroachment were intriguing, focussing on internal social reasons for environmental change (i.e. the cursing of the pastoral landscapes due to the adultery of young men with the wives of elderly people) than on external influences. The integration of local perspectives and scientific explanations gave me the opportunity to both explore a pastoral viewpoint on these dynamics and at the same time scrutinize the received wisdom about environmental changes, overgrazing and degradation narratives.