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5. Mauritania: Nomadism and peripheral capital

Pastoral production
Integration of the pastoral world into the market economy
Evolution of the social and political framework of nomadism

Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh

North-western Africa, known today as the Sahel, has always been an area particularly suited to animal husbandry From the 1,000 head of zebu that Askia Ishaq II used as a protective cover ahead of his troops in March 1591 (Kati 1964. 264) when the Songhai Empire collapsed under the blows of the men of Djouder, to the vast herds all over this area today, there is ample evidence of enormous wealth in livestock of the countries of the Sahel. Before 1972 this was represented by a total of 21 million head of cattle (Gallais 1977, 268).

It was not this wealth of livestock that attracted the Moroccan conquerors. Nor does it appear to have motivated more recent onslaughts, notably the French colonial occupation. But, inevitably, the organization of the pastoral societies of the Sahel, largely centred on cattle and their resources, was profoundly and permanently affected by this occupation. Other factors, such as the recent drought of the 1970s, have contributed to a dangerous acceleration of the process of disarticulation of the Sahelian pastoral systems, but the major factor in the evolution of these systems remains their marginal integration into a monetary economy centred in towns, which themselves are experiencing accelerated and disorganized growth. For Mauritania, which is examined here in order to provide an illustration of recent transformations of Sahelian pastoralism, two figures are enough to indicate the scale of changes that have occurred in recent years: whereas in 1965, nomads made up some 65% of the Mauritanian population, by 1976, they represented only 36%. Over the same period, the urban population grew threefold, rising from 90.000 in 1961 to 300,000 in 1977.

Leaving aside the terminological problems - the relationship between 'pastoralism', 'nomadism' and 'semi-nomadism' (Salzman 1980)- this chapter first presents a short outline of the factors of pastoral production, and then examines the forms and effects of the integration of pastoral society into an economy dominated by commodity relations. Finally, the social and political aspects of this integration will be considered in order to attempt clarification of the specific forms taken by the contradictions - of clans, groups, classes within a pastoral society undergoing massive upheavals

Pastoral production

The original complex constituted by the symbiosis of agriculture and animal husbandry in the prehistory of human societies (Leroi-Gourhan, I, 227-37) developed and survived at the cost of a specialization often involving violence. This complex and the more or less voluntary association between agriculturalists and herders constituted a permanent feature of the organization of Sahelian societies, and especially of Moorish society.

The environment and its resources

The key features of the Mauritanian climate are high aridity and extreme variations of temperature. It is dominated by dry winds (the maritime alize from the Azores anticyclone and the continental alize, the Irivi in the Moorish dialect) often laden with sand.

In July-August the monsoon winds from the high pressure zones in the South Atlantic provide the bulk of the rainfall, which barely exceeds 600mm in the best watered regions of the country (the far south). Further north rainfall declines to less than 100mm above a Nouakchott-Atar-Oualata line and to less than 50mm along the coast in the far north.

The influence of the maritime and continental alizes and the monsoon winds, combined with distance from the ocean, makes it possible to distinguish two broad climatic zones, each with a coastal and a continental aspect: the Sahara and the Sahel. North of Nouakchott, the coast, which has constant humidity, low rainfall and relatively low temperatures in winter, is a 'tropical coastal desert'.

The Saharan climate properly so-called, covering the vast bulk of the country, is marked by large variations in temperature, low rainfall and high evaporation.

The northern limit of Sahelian Mauritania is usually placed along the 150mm isohyet. Temperature variations in the coastal parts of this Sahelian zone are small and, on average, temperatures are lower than in the continental Sahelian climate.

Naturally, the types of vegetation and grazing land vary, depending on the climatic situation. The plant cycle also depends on the latitude and the nature of the soils. From north to south we can distinguish:

1) A vast desert zone stretching over mineral-poor soils, with sparse vegetation generally concentrated in areas with many streams (steep slopes in the mountains, oued courses and so on). Tree cover consists mainly of Acacia Raddiana and herbaceous plants, mainly of hardy graminaceae (Stipagrostis Pungens), making it possible, apart from short periods when the very irregular rainfall produces fresh pasture, to engage in animal husbandry (camels, sheep, goats) that sometimes requires movement over only short distances.

Apart from these areas of greater or lesser concentrations of plants (in the Saharan context, of course!) the sporadic grazing areas in the Saharan regions and notably the salty grasses (Cornulaca Monacantha) constitute excellent winter pastures for camels, virtually the only animals able to get any nourishment from them, given the distances to he travelled and the scarcity of watering points (in cool weather, camels feeding on these grasses can survive without drinking for over two months).1

2) A Sahelian zone with pastures renewed each year by relatively regular rainfall. The vegetation becomes denser and more varied as one moves south. Alongside a scattering of large trees (Adansonia Digitata and Combretum Glutinosum) that herald the Sudanic savanna, more or less dense copses of various varieties of acacia (Acacia Senegal; Acacia Flava: Acacia Nilotica, among others) as well as trees or shrubs (notably Commiphora Africana and Zizyphus Mauritania) of lesser forage value, dominate a bushy vegetation in which the typical Sahelian graminacea (Cenchrus Biflorus) occupies a preponderant place in the rainy season. This zone is mainly a cattle area, but there are sheep and goats too. Dromedaries, on the other hand, can stay there only in the dry season: in the wet season there is an abundance of tsetse flies carrying the very dangerous camel sleeping-sickness (tburit).

Mauritanian livestock

The adaptation of Sahelian animal species to these harsh, natural conditions, the result of a long process of selection, has been stressed by several observers (Charles Toupet 1975. 227 and 29). The mediocre results so far obtained by attempts to acclimatize exotic species or by the few attempts at cross-breeding them with indigenous breeds, suggest that the Sahelian-Saharan species, with their qualities of resistance and moderate food and water needs, are not about to be replaced by new breeds, despite their low yields.

Goats, sheep, camels and cattle are the predominant animals reared in these areas. The so-called 'Sahelian' goats are the most widespread. These are of varying colours, high on the hoof and quite light when they reach maturity (averaging between 15-20 and 40 kg): females produce 70 litres of milk annually for a lactation period of 120 days, and adults are estimated to produce 10-15 kg of meat.

There are two kinds of Mauritanian sheep: the 'Fulani' sheep, quite large, with a short, white or black and white coat, and an adult weight of 30 to 50 kg, producing up to 30 kg of meat, excellent for human consumption: and the smaller, longer hatred 'Moorish' sheep, which provides the main raw material of nomad tents- and produces more milk than the Fulani: 1.5 to 2 litres per day in the rainy season.

All the camels raised in Mauritania are the single-humped Camelus Dromedarius. Used for transport, and for milk production, the camel is also used as a draught animal and as a source of meat for human consumption. Its hair, especially that of young animals, provides a valuable supplementary raw material for making Moorish tents. The adults weigh on average 450 to 550 kg, and can provide 150 kg of meat. Females produce an estimated average of 400 litres of milk per head per year for a lactation period of 270-360 days.

The cattle in Mauritania - Bos ludicus - are distinguished es 'Moorish' zebu and 'Fulani' zebu. The Moorish variety, with an average adult weight of between 320 and 360 kg, provides 500 litres of milk annually for a lactation period of 180-200 days. The heavier Fulani zebu (up to 400 kg on average in adulthood) produces less milk (some 300 litres for a lactation period of 180-200 days). Average meat production from adult males can reach 150-250 kg.

The low productivity of Sahelian livestock reflected in these figures is somewhat compensated for by the large size of flocks and herds that some observers consider to be excessive compared to the meagre resources available. The load capacity of Sahelian pastures will be assessed later.

There are great disparities in the quantity of livestock owned by individuals and families. These disparities confirm a hierarchical stratification marked by a longstanding system of pseudo-castes which has been considerably accentuated by recent imbalances consequent upon the urban commercial sector's domination of the pastoral economy that has developed in the wake of the colonial and post-colonial administration.

Particularly since 1968 (the beginning of the recent wave of droughts in the Sahel) as a result of the steep fall in cattle prices (in 1968 a milch cow was selling at Francs CFA I.500 at Boutilimit, whereas two years earlier it had been worth 20 or 25.000) there has been a massive transfer of cattle from traditional herders to traders and bureaucrats in the towns. This development and its economic and social significance will be discussed later.

Regarding the average size of traditional-type family herds, no established estimates exist, but from a limited empirical knowledge of Mauritanian and especially Moorish pastoralism it can be said that for large ruminants, herds bigger than 100 head are exceptional. For many families of herders, livestock resources are limited to a few dozen sheep and goats, and rarely to more than 20 head of cattle or camels.

Charles Toupet, citing pre-drought estimates, suggests for 1968. 1.9 cattle per inhabitant for a total Mauritanian population then estimated at 1.091,500 (Toupet 1975. 240). The author stresses that compared to the FAO's figure (0.31) at the same time for the whole planet, this is very high. The annual growth rate of Mauritanian livestock was recently estimated at 8% for a population growing annually by some 2.5%, which testifies to the devastating effects of the drought in the Sahelian region since the beginning of the 1970s.

Table 5.1
Livestock numbers 1969-80

  1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1980
Cattle 2,000 1,850 1,550 1,500 1,115 1,150 1,135 1,400
Sheep and goats 7,000 6,750 6,500 6.500 5,850 6,300 6,800 6,500
Camels 710 705 700 670 680 680 685 750

More significant for the management of family flocks and herds, particularly for a proper assessment based on what some observers consider to be an excessive accumulation of redundant and useless livestock (for example, a large number of young males and old animals) would have been a precise assessment of the average composition of flocks and herds.

The scattered figures that can be found, which must be accepted warily - fear of the devil eye', and of heavy taxes, mean that statements made by herders are not entirely trustworthy - and which relate almost exclusively to cattle rearing, are, due to their very imprecision, difficult to interpret. A few are, however, given below.

In the early 1960s, the following distribution was suggested for the cattle herds in the Moudjria region (central Sahelian Mauritania) made up on average of 120 head (Toupet, op, cit.. 249): 5 bulls; 10 bullocks: 67 cows and heifers: 38 calves of both sexes.

The livestock department's official estimates for the same period suggest a much higher proportion of males: males 4 years old and above. 8%; females 4 years old and above. 38.5%: males aged I to 3 years. 18%: male calves. 7.5%: female calves. 7.5%.

Following are more recent figures for the Mauritanian region of Tagant, the same region that was the focus of Toupet's surveys (Grosser and Ba. 1980. 30). Bearing females: sheep and goats 40%: cattle 40% camels 30%. Adult males: sheep and goats 10%: cattle 10%; camels 20%. For young growing animals, 50% in each category: and for numbers of births per female per annum: sheep and goats. 2%; cattle 0.6%; and camels 0.4%.

In order to explain the 'rationality' or 'irrationality' of the economic behaviour of Sahelian herders these figures must be put in the overall socioeconomic context. Changes in this context since colonization and the gradual integration of Sahelian pastoral societies into a dependent and dominated market economy will be discussed later.

Rather than any individual Sahelian herder's desire to accumulate cattle, the reasons for the growth in numbers of livestock supported with increasing difficulty by the poor pastures of the Sahelian region must also be examined in the socio-economic context. The pre-colonial pastoral system's relative functionality is generally recognized today, involving as it did building up a stock for food and trading purposes adapted to environmental conditions and periodically readjusted to these conditions by razzias and natural disasters. But it did not withstand the growing grip of commodity relations, which the economic crises of capitalism and local climatic crises have helped accelerate. The emergence of a market for cattle, and the enhanced dependence that the development of an essentially unequal exchange signified for herders, were processes contemporary with the transformation of political and social conditions (notably replacement of the disorganized razzia violence by the 'rational' violence of what was called 'pacification') that affected political control of the pastoral space. These factors, combined with the establishment of an embryonic modern health and water infrastructure, helped increase demands on the grazing areas of the Sudan and the Sahel.

Examination of the 1938 figures - even judged by the colonial administrator Beyris, who reported them, to be one-third short of reality - shows, in comparison to Table 5, 1, how big this increased burden was: in that year, less than five years after the final stabilization of colonial rule, the Governor of Mauritania's annual report (the Hodh circle was not yet part) gave the following figures for the whole country: 75.871 camels: 212.175 cattle; 1,713,631 sheep and goats.2

Compared to current estimates of the forage resources of Mauritania, figures in Table 5.1 show the first phase of a saturation process which, according to some forecasts, will become total and effective by the year 2000. In fact according to a recent study for the Mauritanian Ministry of the Economy and Finance (RAMS. 'Livestock subsector study'), the load capacity of the 55 million hectares in Mauritania that can be grazed (one unit of tropical cattle requiring between 4 and 70 hectares depending on the state of the biomass) will, if current trends continue, be reached by the year 2000.

This type of assessment must be treated with caution since, while the volume of cattle/useful area ratio is convenient to give a rough assessment, it glosses over many parameters whose complex interaction can alone provide the bases for a well-founded forecast. Independent of the strictly geographical factors, social and technical constraints decisively alter this ratio, which is also heavily dependent on the forms of state intervention (forage policy, reserve policy, and so on) and its regional and sectoral economic choices (Gallais. 1979, 121).

In the space available here it is not possible to survey all of these factors. The changes in the system of pastoral production, the various techniques of acquiring and processing livestock products, all of which directly affect herders' consumption and incomes,3 are of relevance, but here only one crucial aspect for the future of pastoralism will be highlighted. This is mobility, which constitutes both the distinguishing feature of pastoral life and a permanent means of adjusting human and animal occupation to the precarious and unevenly distributed resources of the natural environment of the Sahel and the Sahara.

Mobility and herding

Aside from its cultural significance as a focal element of pastoral civilization the nomadics' life-style aims, above all, to procure access to basically rare and precarious resources. It is the decisive role of mobility, that constitutes both the form and the major means of subsistence of the pastoral community.

Nomadic movements show a degree of permanence in to where, how, and when they take place. These movements are tightly conditioned by the seasonal character of the rainfall, although the distance covered by herders annually has markedly decreased, resecting the weakening of large- in favour of small-scale nomadism, a tendency that is often the prelude to sedentarization.

Mauritanian and more generally Sahelian-Saharan nomads move back-and-forth from north to south, following the annual rainfall pattern. From the first tornadoes over the southern regions of the country (June-July) a slow movement northwards gets underway and continues until the end of the cold season. A movement in the opposite direction then begins, taking large numbers of nomads as far as the banks of the river Senegal and the Niger bend by the end of the dry season.

In contrast to this regular north-south movement, a second, much more diffuse and irregular form of nomadic movement corresponds to the development of exceptional grazing areas in the beds of oueds or in the gryar (areas into which water runs off mountainous regions). This form, typical of the Saharan part of the country, generally involves small-scale movements.

The annual range of north-south migration, which varies for both full and semi-nomads, depending on the volume and distribution of rainfall, reaches its maximum among camel-keeping nomads who may cover over 1.000 km annually (UNESCO, 1965). For example, the Hmu dnnt of the Dhar of Oualata spend the winter around Agweylil Nmdi, over 200 km north-east of Oualata on the saline ht pastures, often several days from the nearest watering point; their dry season and early winter stay is generally on the Tgurarut cliffs, near to the well of the same name some 260 km south-eat of Agweylil. In winter, the camels are sometimes left to roam freely, moving much further north than their owners who meet up with them at the beginning of the hot season at watering points where they are accustomed to drink. Occasionally some cattle thief- rustling is still quite common in this region- upsets this almost automatic mechanism.

In bad years, such as have been the case since 1968, much greater distances are covered. In March 1980, at the watering-place at 'Weynt r-razzat, about 10 km south-east of Nma, we met a young hmu nni shepherd (from the hmu nnt, a D-dlkne 'fraction'), who had come down with his family from the remote regions of the dhar where they had spent the winter and who, when we met them, had already travelled 400 km southwards. Given that there had been almost no rain in the Oualata region in 1979, they had only a very vague idea of how far south they would go. Perhaps, they said, as far as Ras el Me (lake Faguibine, in Mali). Their quest for grazing lands in the south would then have taken them over 800 km, which they would have to retrace in the opposite direction as soon as the rains started in order to save the camels from contracting taburit (trypanosomiasis).

The movement of semi-nomadic cattle herders and shepherds has the same seasonal characteristics as that of camel herders (acceleration in the rainy season, slowing down in the dry season) it generally extends, barring a major climatic disaster, over much smaller areas.

For example, in January 1980, we encountered a camp of S-sxaymt cattle herders 75 km south-east of Magta Lajar. Usually, when rainfall was more or less normal, they moved throughout the year between el Wd Lebya in the south-east and Wd Leyrdi in the north-west. When we met them, as in the previous year, they were just beginning a journey southwards, due to the catastrophic failure of the rains in 1979. Only two men and a paid Fulani shepherd were accompanying the herd, on a journey that would take them 300 km to the Selibaby region. These were full nomads whose sole activity was herding and who, in order to save what was almost their only resource, were capable of a great burst of large-scale nomadism. With the increase of agriculture in their activities the capacity to undertake this sort of move is becoming lost.

As some Idegg molle agriculturalists explained, since the construction of the Magta La jar dam (1,400 hectares flooded) in the late 1940s they have tended to settle alongside the fields, thus creating a large village with 3.821 inhabitants by 1977. 'In the beginning,' a notable belonging to this group told us in January 1980, 'we used to send a lot of people with the herds and very few to the fields, but today almost everybody is farming and only a few people are sent with the animals.' The correlation between nomads' practice of agriculture and the increasingly lesser distance they cover each year is obvious.

Recent data from the 'Provisional Results of the General Population Census' conducted in January 1977 by the Mauritanian Ministry of Planning show that almost 30% of nomad households practice agriculture, with a low percentage in the north and far east (regions of large-scale camel-herding nomadism) and a much higher percentage in the southern regions.

A high percentage can be observed in the Adrar (46.1 %) and Tagant (32%) despite the relative aridity of these regions. This is linked to the presence of a large number of palm groves which, without any loss of pride, the nomads can cultivate freely (palm growing is more 'noble' than working in the fields, which is generally poorly regarded and even despised).

The 1977 census figures show a relatively small proportion of large-scale nomads among the non-sedentary population. Only 17% of those counted make annual moves of more than 200 km; these are mainly in the camel-herding regions of the far north-west and south-east of the country.

The importance of semi-nomadism and transhumance compared to long-distance nomadism indicated in Table 5.2 is only the most striking manifestation of an erosion affecting every aspect of Mauritanian pastoralism, principally the conditions and forms of mobility, the key feature of pastoral life.

It has been noted that the relative abundance of cattle, periodically controlled before colonization by natural disasters and razzias, might appear to be a compensation for the mediocre productivity of these Sahelian-Saharan breeds. The rapid growth in numbers, especially from the 1950s.4 in which some observers claim to see a process of saturation beginning, and as both cause and effect of desertification, the consequences of which became particularly dramatic after 1968, resulted in fact from the complex interaction of numerous factors in which the hegemonic extension of commodity relations played a central role. Mobility itself, the key factor of pastoral production and the reproduction of pastoral society, was profoundly affected by changes that gradually increased semi-nomadism and transhumance compared to large-scale nomadism, and often led to nomads settling in rural villages or on the outskirts of the new urban agglomerations.

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