Pastoralism: a minimalist and environmentally friendly way of living

In this Photo is Virambhai - The Pastoralist

“It is the first time in our lifetime that we have come to Gujarat, walking 280 kms from our village with our livestock”, says Virambhai from Khengarpur village in the Lakhpat Tehsil of Kutch district in Gujarat. He has migrated to Maliya block in Morbi District of the state of Gujarat. (For pastoralists of Kutch, their native place is Kutch, and down Kutch begins Gujarat.

We went to meet a group of pastoralists, as its their way of live, this group engages in mobility of herds, people, and their habitat. The need to understand their lived experiences as pastoralists, and the challenges that their changing context poses on them inspired my meeting with them.

We travelled to Maliya, going 5 kms into the major highway, to a place where he had put-up with his family and livestock for one week. It was the fourth day for them on that field, they planned to stay for another six days, before they will move again. There is no pacca (tarred) road to make easy our movement in the field. The field had no vegetation at the moment, it was the picture of a land that had recently given up its yields; a perfect site to camp! Recovering from a season of harvest, the farm lands lay plain and seedless, waiting to be prepped for a new season. As we approach further into the field, we could see three khats (Cots) positioned in the field forming a triangle. These Khats carry the possessions of three families who are migrating together with their livestock.

Young goats and sheep lying, waiting for their mothers

With the scorching sun glaring down at us, we encountered some pastoralist men and women awaiting our arrival. A few others joined us later. We asked them about their route, and they shared that they are all migrating albeit differently. At the moment, they planned on settling in 5-7 nearby villages in search of pasture; the nearby villages are located within a radius of 4-5 kms from where we met them. I learned that they had deputed their family members to graze their livestock to enable them to meet with us at noon; afternoon is a good time for them as they are mostly busy with their livestock in the evening, after grazing. Beside the spot where we gathered, a big long net with a few ropes lay scattered in between the triangle shaped khats. No big livestock are seen, only young goats and sheep. They shared with us that their older livestock are out for grazing, thus only the young ones are left behind, that are cared for by the women. There are clearly defined gender roles in place here, men take the livestock for grazing, and women cook the meals for the family and perform other domestic duties such as doing laundry at nearby water source, fetching water, vegetables and other stuff from the nearby villages. Also, women perform significant role of taking care of the children; ailing and young livestock.

Women takes care of the children, ailing and young livestock  

It was evening, and we witnessed the arrival of the livestock that had been out for grazing. The first ones to arrive were the three camels, they are welcomed with moaning and sobs from their young ones expecting their mothers. In a short time, the sheep and goats followed the camels. Being on a huge plain field, they were visible from afar off. Upon the safe arrival of all the livestock, we learnt the usefulness of the big long net and ropes we had seen earlier; they are for safety, the women and men had tied the net on four distant sides to surround the young ones. The yearning from the mothers and their young as they seek out one another is very emotive. The knowledge, affection and closeness of pastoral families is visible when they grab each offspring and take it to its mother. This scenario cannot be captured in words, it is indeed so moving to witness the joy of the reunion, the mothers and their young are so happy to get together as the mothers feed their offspring, licking them affectionately.

Nothing explains pastoralism better – a community without address, co-existing with livestock and nature, no greed of possession/ownership of land or any other natural resources. Pastoral community – the community knows no boundaries, they travel across villages, blocks, districts, states and even nations. They present classic model for practicing boundary-less globe. They co-exist with nature, forest habitat including wild animals, with the forest dwellers, city dwellers, village dwellers, etc.

The pastorals form a population of around 8-10% in Gujarat, they are mostly located in Kutch, North Gujarat and Saurashtra regions and move from these dry, arid and semi-arid regions to most green lands within Gujarat and outside Gujarat towards Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

These pastoralists manage the lands and grasses that is otherwise considered wasteland and convert high energy food out of THIS WASTELAND. For pastoralists, no land is a wasteland, they produce food and other products using the lands, which otherwise will not be put to any productive use. The huge rangelands becomes rejuvenated lands with the manure that is produced while pastoralists move across them, they nourish the land, making the fields fertile for the next planting season. The grazing animals convert vegetation that cannot be eaten directly by humans into high-value foods: milk, meat and various dairy products. Jaisan Kaka, from Kutch best narrates the value they give when he asked: ‘have you seen any machine where you put grasses and it gives you milk?’Pastoralists grazing non-arable rangelands do not compete with humans for food (ILRI, 2019). Pastoralists’ livestock are seldom or never fed with grains that could be used as food for humans.

One thing that was moved me and compelled me to reflect on our capitalist and consumerist way of living, is the optimum resources they require for their living. All the mobile families that I met (which include on an average 5-6 members – husband, wife and children), are on the move, with their possessions hurdled to the back of one camel. I am made to understand that the possession carried by this camel   is enough to last them for eight months and equips them to manage through all three seasons – summer, monsoon and winter. Some of the pictures we took are self revealing. As seen, the household items, generally include 2 khats, one tawa, 2-3 utensils to cook food, 6-7 rakabi (saucer plates), 2-3 dishes to eat, some spices in paper/bag, some cans for fetching and storing water, nets for safety of the livestock and a few clothes.

The pastoralist way of living is a lot different from the mainstream society that stand on the history of settled agricultural habitants. Like tribals, the pastoralists choose a separate route of life cycle that clearly does not resemble that of the mainstream society.

This picture shows the pastoralist way of cooking.

Jehabhai, one of the pastoralist amongst the group says ‘we are entirely dependent on our livestock and likewise, they are dependent on us.’ He added, ‘Aa kadyug na zamana ma, potana chokrao pan samne nathi joyta, zyare gheta bakra ne nam the bolaviye chiye tyare dodi ne avi jaye che.’ (In this time of kalyug, it is possible that our own child doesn’t turn up when we call, but the goat will certainly come. (As per Hinduism, Kalyug is the last of four stages that the world goes through. It is the darkest times, when goodness and virtue has all but disappeared from the world.) This is the kind of bond between pastoralists and their livestock. Even the agro-pastoralists, who have settled into agriculture, give more importance to the livestock over the crops, unlike the crop cultivating farmer, for whom the crop is the priority.

The pastoralists shared that they have 13 rangelands in Kutch, which was open for them from ‘the Kingdom era’. With minimum revenue, they were allowed to graze the livestock for the entire year in the Rangeland. Rather than controlling or exploiting the land, they instead use and manage the land collectively and unanimously. But over the years, these lands are being acquired or encroached, The rangelands in Gujarat are either acquired by the solar parks, national highways, national parks, industries, etc. These are the lands, which are categorized as ‘wasteland’ in the government records but pastoral’s livelihoods is dependent on them. The livestock graze on these lands and they encompass the migratory corridors for pastorals. Thus, losing out the rangelands has pushed pastorals on margins and left them vulnerable.

Speaking with the group of women who joined us at the meeting is empowering, they are fearless! While men go for grazing and searching for the next destination, the women are the ones negotiating with the nearby villagers for water, fuel, other daily requirements, selling the milk and other dairy products. They have full control over the finances and access to market. Pastoralism is a holistic livelihood for the entire family, primarily through selling animals and milk products.

Before dusk creeped in, the pastoralists from nearby villages waved goodbye to me. In spending time with them, we have enjoyed the privilege of witnessing the arrival of the livestock and the rare sight of the relationship of pastoralists with their livestock. Now it is the time for us to depart.

We returned with a feeling of contentment, hope and reassurance that there is an entire community that has taken the task of conserving the environment, and are producing food for the society with an impressively minimalistic approach. I am beginning to see them as the path breakers and direction givers to the humanity, that if environment and nature friendly lifestyle is not adopted, we will not be able to save the world from natural disasters and catastrophes.

Anu Verma, the author is an activist working on social change, with a special focus on pastorals, land and on gender issues. She is associated with South Asia Pastoral Alliance as the focal person. The views expressed here are personal.