Rapid social-ecological change in an East African pastoral community: The historical and political ecology of Pokot pastoralism


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Michael Bollig, University of Cologne. In the first half of the 19th century the Pokot became herders par excellence, recruiting members from different pastoral, forager and agro-pastoral communities. Recent findings on East Africa's (Verschuren) climatic history suggest correspondence between an inter-decadal mega-drought (about 1760-1840) and pastoral specialization. Pastoralization was rapid, thorough and highly successful. By the end of the 19th century the pastoral Pokot were the dominant community of the Baringo Basin and Kerio Valley. In comparative terms they were extremely successful: about 14 head of cattle made them one of East Africa's richest cattle keeping communities; their wealth left a deep impression on colonial administrators. With intensification of pastoralism patterns of social exchange were pastoralized and livestock became the preferred medium to institute social relations. Encapsulation brought about by colonial administration contributed to pastoral specialization and the ethnically defined patterns of land tenure. Since the mid-20th century rapid population growth, rampant rangeland degradation and violence have brought about severe challenges for the highly specialized pastoral economy. These were met by an elaborate set of risk-management strategies. When they failed Pokot economy and society changed rapidly and profoundly. Many Pokot households took up agriculture, became more sedentary and many men and women engaged in some form of trade and service-supply in the past 20 years. Bush-markets spread and grew in importance and ever bigger parts of the population straddle a life between pastoralism and poverty in rapidly growing villages. Stratification emerged rapidly as a consequence of new opportunities for capital accumulation and local politics were captured by a new elite, replacing local elders as decision-makers. Gerontocratic rule is rapidly being replaced by new forms of local governance. The paper argues that highly specialized pastoralism is a fairly recent and temporally restricted (at most 200 years) phenomenon marked by highly specific social-ecological relations. The switch towards pastoral specialization some 200 years ago and the changes towards more diversified forms of production have been rapid and abrupt. The guiding theoretical perspectives – historical ecology and political ecology – ensure that (a) the relevance of dynamic human-environment relations is taken into account and that (b) political processes at different scales have framed these processes to a large degree.