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'A man is his cattle'

Cattle are still a valuable resource in Africa
For many farmers in southern Africa, a herd of cattle or goats is akin to a bank account. It's how families save and build wealth. However, even when drought threatens the herd, they may be reluctant to cash in their investment by selling the animals. Understanding the complex reasons why farmers hold onto their livestock, even when it puts their investment at risk, can help countries in water-stressed regions respond appropriately as the climate becomes hotter, drier, and more drought-prone, reports LEONIE JOUBERT*

When a farmer like Moses Ipinge* (*not his real name) needs cash for medicine, or to repair the roof of his home, or pay his children’s school fees, he dips into his bank account and withdraws some of his savings. That means he’ll sell a head of cattle, maybe to the local butcher or someone else in his village, and use the cash where it’s most needed. Like many Oshiwambo farmers in northern Namibia, and so many others across southern Africa, holding on to his herd is how he protects and builds his savings.

But what happens if drought threatens to shrink the herd through starvation or thirst, as many farmers experienced when the rains failed here between 2013 and 2016? Should Ipinge sell the animals before they lose too much weight, meaning they’ll fetch a lower price? Or worse: what if the animals die before he can cash them in? Should Ipinge risk holding on to the herd for a few more months, in the hope that the rains return and his animals recover their condition and are worth more once again?

Ipinge’s dilemma is typical of the farmers who researchers from the African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI) from the University of Cape Town in South Africa met, while they were visiting the region during the most recent drought. Many of the farmers told researchers that they chose to keep their animals, even though the herds were whittled down and families lost their savings.

“We might assume that the obvious thing to do in a drought, is to sell off your livestock as a way of protecting your wealth. But we have found that there are many reasons why people don’t do that,” explains Cecil Togarepi, an agricultural economist at the University of Namibia (UNAM) who visited the northern Namibian constituency of Onesi between 2015 and 2017.

Togarepi worked alongside a team from the ACDI to test how cultural attitudes towards livestock ownership might influence how people manage their farms and herds, and how this might feed into their levels of vulnerability as the climate continues to shift across southern Africa.

One of the reasons many farmers chose to risk their investment by not selling herds in spite of drought warnings, researchers found, is the long-standing belief that a family’s wealth and status are tied in with the size of the family herd.

Understanding this can help governments and development workers across drier parts of southern Africa work more effectively with communities in order to help them adopt farming practices that can offset the greatest threats that may come with shifts in climate.

“Farmers here have a strong cultural attachment to their livestock,” says Togarepi. “As one farmer said, ‘a man is his cattle’. This attitude makes farmers reluctant to sell off their herds, even when there are forecasts of severe drought.”

“In parts of southern Africa, where conditions are already semi-desert, climate change is going to mean higher temperatures, less predictable rain, and longer drought periods. This is going to put farmers’ herds at much greater risk,” explains Togarepi.

“We need to think about how to work with communities, particularly with traditional and religious leaders, in ways that still honour these beliefs, but that also encourage farmers to make decisions which help them absorb the shock of the drought.”

The ACDI team argues that one way of framing the issue for farmers, is to highlight how losing

his herd to starvation could limit his ability to take part in other important social events, such as paying for a wedding, or contributing to a funeral, where animals are often slaughtered and shared communally.

Authorities can also work with climate ‘champions’ in a rural community, such as church ministers or tribal chiefs, who can warn communities ahead of a predicted drought about what the wider social consequences could be of not selling off their livestock before the animals lose condition. It might also allow greater cash flow for farmers, who will then have money available to adopt other ‘climate-smart’ agricultural practices.

If agricultural advisers recommend that farmers sell their livestock before a drought, they can frame it not only as a sound financial and ecological decision, but also as a way of preserving a farmer’s ability to take part in traditional cultural practices.

Another cultural reason for a family appearing to be slow to sell their drought-stressed animals is linked with traditions relating to property and ownership. Herds are often inherited, and therefore the property of the wider family. This means that the decision to sell is the responsibility of the entire family, not just the head of the household.

Why ‘climate-smart’ agriculture is slow to take off

In 2015, the Namibian government adopted a policy that promotes ‘climate-smart’ agricultural practices, as a way of assisting farmers to become more resilient in the face of shifting climatic patterns. These practices include installing drip irrigation in cultivated lands, switching from traditional millet to an early-maturing form of pearl millet, or farming with rice which is not traditional to the region, explains ACDI researcher Julia Davies, with the ACDI.

Reverting to traditional land-tilling using draught-animal power, instead of tractors, is another opportunity, as well as encouraging farmers to breed drought-tolerant cattle types.

While the Namibian state is working alongside non-governmental organisations and research institutions to get farmers to adopt these practices, farming communities in northern Namibia are slow to take on these methods, owing to these many cultural factors, the ACDI research found.

“In speaking with farmers there, we found that religious beliefs, a reliance on traditional knowledge, and the symbolic significance of certain agricultural practices played a big role in why many farmers aren’t taking on these climate-smart suggestions,” says Davies.

“But we believe that these barriers can be turned into opportunities. By working with religious and traditional value systems, rather than against them, extension workers could promote climate-smart practices in a way that helps reduce the impacts of climate change and variability on these farmers.”

If development agencies and governments communicate climate-smart practices in a way that reminds people they can take these measures as a way of protecting what is sacred, farmers might be more likely to include them in the way they manage their farms and herds.

An approach like this can assist semi-desert countries avoid climate-related environmental shocks in future.

“Often, when drought wipes out herds in southern Africa, governments respond by declaring a state of emergency and bringing in relief. But this can create a dependency syndrome, which we need to avoid,” says Togarepi. 

*This feature article was funded by ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions), an international collaboration of academics and development workers focusing on how semi-arid countries must respond to climate change. This editorial is the fifth segment of a six part series written by South African science writer and author Leonie Joubert

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