Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network
Fatima Jibrell

Pastoralism in Somalia: A Lifestyle under Threat

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The pastoral way of life is dying a slow death. Pastoral communities make up around 60 per cent of the Somali population. The majority of pastoralists in the North of Somalia are in the Haud and Sool Plateau. Their livelihood mainly depends on herding livestock, good rains and pasture. Now we are seeing this way of life coming under threat because of recurring drought, environmental degradation and livestock depletion. In order to understand how we have reached this stage we need to look to the past.

Somali pastoralists rely on livestock as a source of income and sustenance. They mainly herd goats, sheep, camels and cattle. Male camels, donkeys and horses are used for transport only. However, in the North of Somalia many pastoralists use trucks to move their livestock to greener spots and bring water from water points to the livestock when in dire need due to drought. Camels and horses determine the economic rank of a herder family while the number of male members of an extended family identifies each family’s political, military and social status.

South Somalia and few communities in the North practice semi-pastoralism. South and Central Somalia are both camel and cattle herders. Both groups practice rain-fed farming and produce crops. They store it in traditional underground storages for their supplies while they sell the excess for their other needs.

Semi -pastoral communities supplement their way of life with rain-fed farming during rainy seasons. They produce sorghum, millet, corn and beans. Yet this is becoming increasingly difficult because of lack of good rains and environmental degradation in recent years.

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Somali house, aqal.

Times past

I was born to a pastoralist family that roamed between the Laas Qoray coast of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Gebi valley. We crossed some of the highest points of Al-Maddow, The Black Mountain region of the Gulley Range. My immediate family did not own camels except one or two for transport; therefore, we did not venture out into the wilderness of Sool Plateau unless a severe drought compelled us to do so.

In those days, many of the daring pastoral families moved around within areas that predominantly had lions, such as the Sool Plateau and the Haud. These areas had plenty of camel pasture which consisted of a variety of acacia forests but water points were scarce and distant from each other. Camel herds stayed 30 days without water while being driven to a water point for two days, keeping camels thirsty for 32 days within the Sool plateau.

In the Haud zone, camel herds went without water for longer periods. In both Haud and Sool Plateau, herders consumed camel milk for water and food purposes for as long as their herds stayed without water. Goat and sheep herding families stayed closer to water points; their animals surviving 15 days without water during dry seasons.

Although life was difficult for herders because they had to deal with wildlife such as lions attacking both livestock and humans, grasslands and acacia forest species flourished and plant extinction was not a concern.

Technology and colonial economy

During the colonial era, British Somaliland colonial authorities introduced boreholes and berkads, underground rain water collection points made of cement. Livestock trade found sizeable foreign markets in the Arab world and as a result, pastoralists with a good amount of herds sold livestock to urban livestock traders. With this extra cash they were able to build berkads all over the Haud and the Sool Plateau, increasing their herds and overcrowding the water points, causing desertification around permanent water points.

Out of the borehole and berkad proliferation, villages emerged and grew into towns and cities with their own cooking energy, water and building material needs. This only accelerated the desertification in the making. With the introduction of taxation on exports in particular livestock, hides and skins, Arabic gum and frankincense as well as imports such as clothes and dry rations, the colonial powers encouraged urbanization even more to cover the cost of their administration. Very few schools and health facilities came out of the taxes collected. Only boys went to schools and got menial jobs as assistants to the colonial elites for the first 30 years. Until today women make the biggest jobless and illiterate sector of all Somalia.

The pastoral way of life became the economic engine as it continued to flourish, consuming the fragile landscapes. The first casualty was the wildlife. As grazing dwindled when livestock was raised for the export market, DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane) and similar sprays and powders were introduced to the pastoral environment in order to keep the multitude of livestock herds safe from ticks. Lions and other predators fell to metal traps introduced by the colonial masters. When a lion killed a camel, poisonous powders were put on the carcass and left for all predators, vultures dying in great numbers. Wild beasts as well as various kinds of deer disappeared. Also, more wildlife fell due to colonial masters hunting game for sport.

So far no research or study counts the cost of urban centers inflicted on the pastoral way of life. Billions of forest plants fell due to charcoal production, forests burned for cooking energy consumed by city dwellers. In addition, charcoal exportation to the Gulf countries continues. Countless tracks crisscrossing the new desert made by forest clearing and trucks replacing awr, he-camels, for transport among pastoral communities has inadvertently created channels for rain water. The waters flowing through the channels are taking the top soil, animal droppings and seeds carrying it all away to the sea, making the fastest growing desert.

To be fair to the colonial powers, they put into place a forest and grassland protection system as desertification reared its ugly head. Major droughts occurred such as Siiga Casse in 1950 and Gargaar in 1974, but there were only one or two failed rainy seasons once every ten to fifteen years. Forest rangers were created to protect the environment and the Department of Forestry was established.

A small number of trained forest rangers were trained but could not effect positive change on their own. However, some pastoral communities who did experience rangeland management within the Somali cultural and governance systems (lead by Sultans and Chiefs) supported the new department and its initiatives. They sent messages to the government’s closest stations and their rangers when they spotted environmental destruction or abuse. The government and the pastoral communities learned to cooperate along the lines of environmental protection concerning forest plants and grasslands. Not much attention was given to the wildlife. Unfortunately, charcoal production became the only cooking energy available for the cities and towns.

The Department of Forestry gave a license to small companies to produce charcoal and firewood out of the dry trees lying around unused for centuries. The colonial government used this wealth of timber and dry wood for cooking energy, yet they continued harvesting live trees for construction of Aden city in Southern Yemen, where the British military garrisons were stationed.

As wildlife decreased and livestock increased, ticks carried and housed by wildlife attacked livestock more and presented new animal diseases. Thus, DDT became more in use and animals were dipped in a pool of water and DDT mixture few times a year. Since becoming aware, the pastoralists started using other chemicals/medication such as CHLORFENVINPHOS, AMIRAZ and CYERMETHRIN and have moved away from DDT during the last few years.

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Camel carcass on the Sool Plateau.

After independence

In 1960, once Somalia was born out of the Italian and the British protectorates, governance systems put in place by the foreign colonizers continued to work unchanged for the first five years. Corruption increased as two systems merged. Many weaknesses and loopholes were exploited by greedy politicians.

Integrating the two previous systems of governance was not executed cohesively. The voters were not very educated and put all their trust in these so called freedom fighters who would become these politicians. The latter also had little education and were not very experienced in governance. Thus they fell back into the very systems that they hated under the British and the Italians.

More berkads mushroomed all over the valleys that produced major fodder, and charcoal production pushed dry firewood close to exhaustion. More and more pastoral families who had one or two family members who worked in the city or had businesses bought trucks to move their families close to new pastures. With trucks and tankers they receive water for livestock and people from wherever it rains, either paying with exportable livestock or in cash, often a loan.

As Somalia’s last leader before the civil war, Siyad Barre, lost power and Somalia fell into a government vacuum, land for pasture went for grabs. Pastoral communities competed for pasture against charcoal burners. Charcoal exporters were winning. Are winning. Charcoal is exported to the Middle East, in particular, to Dubai because of the cash availability while livestock export to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries was banned for political reasons for the last five years. Knowing very well that Somalia has no government to protect its environment, the Dubai government and the UAE in general continue to give a deaf ear to the cry of environmental activists who demand they stop importing charcoal from Somalia. United Arab Emirates do not need charcoal for energy but they enjoy the aroma of the Somali acacia charcoal used for burning incense, barbecues and smoking Shisha, the water-pipe. Luxury and survival are in competition here and the perceived luxury of the rich Arabs is succeeding.

Displacement and charcoal trade

During the last 20 years of displacement and war, a huge influx of Internally Displaced populations (IDPs) joined the pastoral communities. Pastoral communities welcomed their clan brothers who were displaced, looted and harmed in many ways by opposing, hostile clans. The newcomers came with urban skills but no pastoral skills. The urban IDPs showed no mercy to the environment. They wanted money, so they started introducing kilns and chopping trees for charcoal, exploring both domestic and foreign markets.

Unfortunately, the pastoral families found their own pastoral youth introduced to mira (Kenyan term for khat, leafy Catha edulis plant that is considered as a drug), tobacco/cigarettes and other urban habits not at all conducive to the pastoral way of life; the pastoral culture got poisoned by the urban cousin (IDPs).

Pastoral youth attracted to urban centers

Pastoralists who have seen their way of life to be no longer sustainable have had to seek alternative livelihoods and have been forced to become pastoral dropouts, often moving to urban settings. This has especially affected pastoral youth. As they get a taste for urban night life, Western clothing, movies, they also come with the resilience, strength, tactics and knowledge in gun fighting from their roles as protectors of the clan. Thus, the male pastoral youth have become a ready for hire pool and attracted war-lords, piracy business and ideological armed politicians. Piracy is seen as a lucrative business as it is a way for these young men to make a lot of money very quickly. These idle men also fall prey to fundamentalist militia who wish to use their zeal for weapons as a way to push forward their ideology.

Female youth also trickled to towns and fell into the millions of under-employed in shanty town business where they experience extreme poverty, prostitution, drugs, single motherhood. Their situation does not attract NGOs (local or international), UN agencies and in general, they receive little or no sympathy from others. Women are usually scapegoats for social evils and they are blamed by their families and societies. Therefore, they suffer alone and die unnoticed or ignored.

In general, due to the weak infrastructure unemployment among the urban youth is high. Thus pastoral youth who move to urban settings looking for employment opportunities are often unsuccessful.

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Hadaftimo - gulley erosion.


The pastoral way of life is becoming extinct. The lifestyle of pastoralists is under threat due to various factors that include consecutive droughts, environmental degradation caused by climate change and charcoal production. Illegal fishing and waste dumping by international fishing fleets caused the elimination of marine livelihoods and marine life conservation programs as income generation alternatives. Pastoral dropouts are attracted to piracy as they are forced to seek out alternative livelihoods. The environment is the key to their survival and its conservation could enable pastoralists to ensure them a new beginning, a return to maintain their lifestyle.


Fatima Jibrell

Sunfire Cooking



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Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network