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A Maasai shepherd with traditional clothes watching cows in Masai Mara National Reserve.

The Maasai, like other pastoralists all over Africa, have lived for centuries earning their livelihood from herding livestock, cows, goats, and sheep, roaming over hundreds of kilometers in search of water and grazing land for their cattle. 

Credit: Buena Vista Images via Getty Images

Pastoralism

Call to action:

Support pastoralists as vital practitioners of a cultural and land management way of life that is resilient and has numerous social, environmental, and climate benefits.

Pastoralism is both a way of life and a land use system that engages animal husbandry over open grasslands, including drylands, often communally managed. Animals include goats, sheep, cattle, yak, reindeer, and llamas. Herds are managed by cultural practices honed over centuries. Pastoralism is practiced on one-quarter of the earth's habitable land, including the Steppe cultures of Mongolia and the Massai in Tanzania. It is one of the most regenerative uses of rangelands. Where traditional practices and Indigenous knowledge are intact, biological diversity is enhanced, and ecosystem health is maintained. Pastoral systems are highly adaptive and sensitive to changes in environmental conditions, offering time-tested examples of how to manage uncertainty. However, contemporary conditions, including the privatization of land for development, more frequent droughts, and growing competition for resources, make it increasingly difficult for pastoralists to thrive. Even in the face of these challenges, pastoralists have the potential to support human and environmental resilience by diversifying food production, securing livelihoods in difficult environments, and protecting biodiversity.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about pastoralism and its benefits. Pastoralist culture developed during the Neolithic period in places with semi-arid ecologies, including the Middle East, Eurasia, and East Africa (see Grasslands Nexus). It is centered on herds of grazing animals. Today, roughly 200-500 million people practice a pastoral lifestyle on every habitable continent, and 75 percent of all nations have some pastoral cultures within their borders. The herded animals provide pastoral groups with essential meat, milk, and other products year-round. Recognizing their importance, the UN named 2026 the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists. Key points about pastoralism:

Understand the threats pastoralists face. Pastoralism is an agroecological practice and a cultural tradition of community and society building that exists outside of the mechanisms of global markets and state institutions (see Agroecology Nexus). Ensuring free movement and access to rangelands is crucial to protecting and maintaining pastoral culture. However, many factors threaten the sustainability of pastoralist cultures. Desertification, for example, is a severe form of land degradation that is increasing in many areas where pastoralism is practiced (see Desertification Nexus). The effects of climate change and increasing conflicts over political boundaries and land use rights are hindering many pastoralists from effectively utilizing viable grazing grounds. Threats include:

Learn what you can do to support pastoralists. There are options for individuals who want to support pastoral cultures as well as different types of pastoral activities.

  • Support a nonprofit that is working on behalf of pastoralism. You can donate, volunteer, or sign up for newsletters. The League for Pastoral Peoples and the Centre for Pastoralism are two examples. See Key Players below for more organizations.
  • Participate in pastoral-focused ecotourism. Some pastoral peoples, such as the Maasai in Kenya, are using ecotourism as a way to generate economic support. However, ecotourism is controversial and can often create more challenges than benefits for pastoralists and Indigenous communities. Here and here are articles on how to identify sustainable ecotourism opportunities.
  • Buy food products from regenerative agricultural enterprises that use herding or other pastoral practices. Many regenerative farms and ranches often have a variety of food and other products for sale. The Brown Ranch in South Dakota and Polyface Farms in Virginia are examples. See Regenerative Agriculture Nexus for more ideas.
  • Become a shepherd. There is a growing movement of young people embracing and pursuing shepherding as a way of life. With potential opportunities in land stewardship and prescribed grazing, The Grazing School of the West offers vocational training for aspiring graziers. A connection to the beauty of shepherding and the responsibility of keeping it alive has led to a resurgence from Spain to California.

Groups

Pastoralist communities

Besieged with global challenges, pastoralists are finding practical and policy solutions that increase productivity while creating respect and support for their way of life. Join the FAO’s Pastoralist Knowledge Hub to share ideas and experiences.

  • Organize to defend land rights. PINGO, the Pastoralists Non-Governmental Organization's Forum, is a leading model for the organization of pastoral peoples to secure their rights. PINGO is a coalition of fifty-three Indigenous peoples organizations working in Tanzania for the rights of indigenous pastoralists. The IUCN has also published a thorough case study containing numerous examples from seventeen different countries that are working to secure their rights.
  • Consider ecotourism. Here is a toolkit from UNESCO for sustainable tourism.
  • New technology. Open-source software, digital technology, and social media networks create new opportunities for pastoralists to manage their herds, find fresh pastures, and avoid conflicts.

NGOs

Help keep pastoral communities intact. There are many ways of supporting pastoral communities, from helping transition them to working on infrastructure projects to help adjust to the demands already posed by climate change.

Promote an understanding of the economic and ecological benefits of pastoralism. Traditional pastoral cultures need support in advocating their needs to governments and policymakers. Groups such as PINGO, an advocacy coalition in Tanzania working for the rights of pastoral people, serve as a model for NGO intervention in pastoralist preservation and sustainability.

Governance

Initiate policies that include and support pastoralists. A significant challenge for governments and policymakers is recognizing the need for pastoralists to have access to land, particularly along traditional migration routes. This potential for neglect puts pastoralists at a clear disadvantage in the global marketplace and local environments. Changing the perception of pastoralist practices as a viable solution to dryland management is an essential step in encouraging supportive policies. Including pastoralists in government policy will also help manage conflict between pastoralists and sedentary agriculturists.

Commit to the tenets of Sustainable Pastoralism. With increasing degradation of rangelands, Sustainable Pastoralism, as defined by the United Nations, proposes to be an effective way to conserve and responsibly use these ecosystems. There are six key aspects that have been identified as crucial to supporting a Sustainable Pastoralist culture in the modern world

Listen

Listen

Adam and his Goats: Thoughts on Modern Day Pastoralism - The Ground Shots Podcast (70 mins.)

Andean Pastoralist Livelihood Initiative - Weaving Voices Podcast (34 mins.)

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