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Violent intercommunal clashes between herders and farmers can be avoided if African governments recognise the complexities that exist in these conflicts and to remove barriers to accessing land for pastoralists without compromising the rights of farming communities. Internally displaced villagers herd livestock in Turkana county, Kenya. © 2014 Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Human Rights Watch

Farmer-Herder Conflicts on the Rise in Africa

Violent clashes between farmers and herders in Nigeria’s Middle Belt in June reminded me of a smelting hot afternoon a year ago.  I was sitting in my living room watching a herder grazing his cows in my yard in the small town in southwestern Cameroon where I live.

My thoughts meandered from the negatives attributed to cattle herders across western and central Africa to tenuous community land rights, increasingly taken over by commercial farms across Africa, and the pressures on land from increased aridity in the Sahel region.

In Nigeria, violent clashes between herders and farmers since January have resulted in the deaths of more than 1300 people. An estimated 300,000 have been forced to flee their homes.

Increased frequency of violent conflict has been linked to intense pressures on land because of expansion of commercially cultivated areas, corporate mining activities, and competitive overuse of common resources, such as forests, pastoral rangelands, and water sources,  exacerbated by climate change.

Growing aridity in the Sahel and northern regions, advancing desertification, and heightened risk of extreme weather events have resulted in decreased availability of grazing land. For example, in northern Nigeria, experts say, a blend of more heat plus less rain worsens the threat of desertification. The Sahel is creeping southward by approximately 1,400 square miles a year, swallowing whole villages and reducing the land available for grazing.

Several hundred million people practice pastoralism – the use of extensive grazing on rangelands for livestock production, in over 100 countries worldwide. The African Union estimated that Africa has  about 268 million pastoralists  -- over a quarter of the total population -- living on  about 43 percent of the continent’s total land mass. Yet, weak government regulation of pastoralism, poor land management, and inadequate policies on climate change adaptation have worsened land-related tensions.

In Nigeria, deaths from violence related to clashes between herders and farming communities is increasing. The situation is not much different elsewhere in West Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, violent intercommunal clashes in March 2016 between pastoralists and farmers in Bouna, in the northeast, left at least 27 people dead and thousands more displaced.

For women, losing husbands or male relatives during such violence could mean losing access to land or livestock, when others grab land and property from them. Violent clashes also cause women and children to flee to displacement camps, exposing them to further risks of abuse.

An increasing number of African countries have legally recognized customary rights to land and systems of communal property. Some African countries have pastoral laws that guarantee access to pastureland to preserve herder mobility. For the most part, though, these laws are not harmonized with other regulations on land, water, forests, and protected areas, making them difficult to enforce.

African governments need to recognize the complexities that exist in these conflicts and to remove barriers to accessing land for pastoralists without compromising the rights of farming communities. Designing viable conditions under which land is occupied and used by nomadic and farming communities such as creating grazing corridors through inclusive decision-making would reduce conflict. This would also secure pastoralist livelihoods without weakening customary ownership of farming communities.

The most successful responses are community-driven and location specific, where national government mediation has resulted in solutions that work for both herders and farmers. A prime example is the 2016 Marial Bai agreement in South Sudan’s Wua region of Bahr el Ghazal. The agreement, which supplements South Sudan’s law governing community land, stipulates rules to resolve migration-related conflicts, procedures for obtaining permission to move cattle and compensation for damaged crops or livestock.

When I read about these herder-farmer conflicts, I often wonder what happened to the herder I saw in my yard. He was middle-aged and seemed to be Fulani – a nomadic ethnic group found predominantly in northern Cameroon. I remember he fell asleep on grass under a tree as his cattle grazed on the tall shrubs but stirred awake as they became restless. He made a soft clucking sound that was oddly familiar. The animals assembled and moved out of the yard. They were majestic-- the herder and his cattle— but sadly, for some, they represent a threat to their own way of life.

Pastoralism doesn’t have to result in violent conflicts if governments develop creative solutions recognizing everyone’s right to use land, including water and forests. 

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