The Keepers of Genetic Diversity: Meeting with Pastoralist Communities in Kenya

photo credit: Bernard Pollack

photo credit: Bernard Pollack

This is the first of a two-part series about pastoralist communities.

I never thought I’d be talking about livestock genetic diversity with Dr. Jacob Wanyama, someone who I’ve admired since I first started writing about livestock issues in 2002, in a food court. But there we were, eating Indian food In Nairobi’s first shopping mall, and talking about how pastoralist communities in Kenya, Uganda, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa are mostly unrecognized by governments and not allowed in most decision-making processes. And Wanyama, as he likes to be called, should know. He’s been working for pastoralist peoples for nearly two decades, with organizations like Practical Action (formerly ITDG) and Veternaires Sans Frontiers (VSF), and is coordinator for the African LIFE Network, which works to increase rights for pastoralist communities.

Wanyama was kind enough to fly from Uganda, where he’s currently on assignment, to talk to us and to introduce us to his colleague, Dr. Pat Lanyasunya, who would accompany us on a trip to Samburu province in North Central Kenya over the weekend.

Wanyama explained to us how, over the years, pastoralists like the well-known Maasai here in Kenya have been pushed out of their traditional grazing lands to drier and drier regions, places where it was easy to ignore them. But as the effects of climate change, hunger, drought, and the loss of biodiversity become more evident, it’s increasingly hard to push livestock keepers’ rights aside. “Governments need to recognize,” says Wanyama, “that pastoralists are the best keepers of genetic diversity.” Anikole cattle, for example, a breed indigenous to Eastern Africa, are not only “beautiful to look at,” says Wanyama, but they’re one of the “highest quality” breeds of cattle because they can survive in extremely harsh, dry conditions—something that’s more important than ever as climate change takes a bigger hold on Africa.

Unfortunately, governments and agribusiness don’t share the same viewpoint. They’re increasingly promoting cross-breeding of native breed with exotic breeds—breeds that were designed to gain more weight and produce more milk. The problem is, however, that these newer breeds have hard time adapting to sub-Saharan Africa’s dry conditions, as well as the pests and diseases present here. As a result, pastoralists who adopt these breeds have to spend more on feed and inputs, like pesticides and antibiotics to keep cattle healthy.

We’ll share what we learned first-hand about these problems outside the town of Maralal in Samburu, Kenya, where we talked to a group of 25 pastoralists.

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