Research themes & cases – PASTRES

In PASTRES we are exploring responses to uncertainty across three themes, through case studies in three continents – China, Europe and Africa. The project also explores some cross-cutting questions about uncertainty and resilience.


PASTRES explores uncertainties around environment and resources (notably due to climate change and land-use shifts), markets and commodities (including the interplay of informal pastoral economies with high-value export markets) and institutions and governance (linked to enclosures, privatisation and ‘hybrid governance’ arrangements, including conflict over competing land uses).

Browse the headings below to find out more about each theme.

Environment and Resources

Somali pastoralists with water containers
Pastoralists in Somalia. Photo: Michele Nori

In complex, non-linear ecological systems, such as in pastoral areas, conditions of stability rarely apply.

This basic insight is often not incorporated into management and policy regimes, resulting in a long history of failure in control-oriented development efforts. Attempts to manage for stability (through certain grazing regimes, fencing systems or environmental management regulations) are upset in highly variable systems.

Non-equilibrium approaches, reflecting pastoralists’ own flexible, improvised and mobile responses, are required, where variability becomes a resource. This is especially the case under conditions of climate change, where droughts or heavy snow falls become more frequent. Socio-ecological studies suggest a deeper cultural-political perspective on uncertainty is required; one that links social and technological imaginaries, and deeply-rooted epistemic cultures, to future directions. Approaches to responding to uncertainty and building resilience include ‘adaptive management‘, ‘managing mess/generating reliability’ and creating ‘transformations’.

Markets and Commodities

A Tibetan pastoralist transports goods on a tractor in the mountains
Transporting goods in Tibet. Photo: Michele Nori

The penetration of new capitalist relations through processes of globalisation creates new spaces and interfaces for economic relations. Even in remote pastoral areas, new forms of commodification – of land, water, energy, minerals, carbon, biodiversity and other resources – are occurring.

Commodification involves the revaluation of the environment, individualisation, privatisation and the creation of new markets. This restructuring of former common property systems and the enclosure of land and resources can have profound effects on livelihoods.  As well as ‘grabs’ by external investors, this may involve accumulation by local elites in a process of social differentiation, seen starkly in some pastoral areas. As traditional pastoral systems are transformed, new social and political engagements with capital and markets are being forged. Alternatively, they may build on long-standing economic relations, based on a sharing economy, transnational trading, migrant networks and remittance connections. For, while frequently at the margins of state territory and power, pastoral areas are often in the centre of important regional cross-border trade networks.

With growing demand for livestock products, driven by increased incomes and changes in urban and middle class diets, opportunities for pastoral production and markets expand. Yet such market networks are often informal and low-value, suggesting important questions about how informal and formal economies intersect under conditions of globalisation.  At the same time, such areas are also seen as sites for carbon sequestration, watershed protection and ecotourism, resulting in conflicts over land use. ‘Real markets’ driving change in pastoral areas must be seen as embedded, social-cultural phenomena. Competing processes of economic change, within different frameworks of commodification and market development, occurring in pastoral areas are in turn linked to processes of territorialisation, sedentarisation and state control. This makes pastoral areas sites of conflict between formal and informal markets, and between externally-driven capitalist expansion and local, endogenous dynamics.

Governance and institutions

Map of Northern Kenya showing borders and place names
Map of Northern Kenya and surrounding territories (photo: Wikimedia commons)

Pastoral areas often are in places at the edge of state power, straddling borders where forms of centralised control are weak. Boundaries are fuzzy and contested in mobile systems rooted in forms of common property.

In many areas, a new spatial ordering is occurring, linked to processes of territorialisation, sedentarisation, regionalisation, privatisation under neoliberal globalisation, as well as state-led development. Processes of incorporation are uneven and may result in displacement, conflict and violence, prompting large-scale movements of people linked to social unrest. In response, hybrid governance arrangements are evolving as extensive transhumant systems transform, with a mix of private and common property ownership. Changes of authority, political order and forms of citizenship are emerging.

In this fast-changing context, a range of institutional innovations for managing livestock and rangelands exist that respond to uncertainty, and offer important lessons. Standard institutional and governance responses – for example enforcing boundaries with inflexible management institutions based on settled cultures and practices – fail in pastoral areas, and may generate insecurity and conflict, as well as environmental degradation. Authority may be built from below, with networked, hybrid, federated institutions and pluralistic regulation, based in embedded social and cultural relations, bricolage institutions and ‘rhizomic’ relationships in society, creating ‘vernacular’ forms of governance and security arrangements that ‘go with the grain’ without imposing particular forms and rules.

This suggests new thinking about relationships between states, resources, territories and citizens under uncertainty, the range of state and non-state actors involved, and the form of inclusive, adaptive, polycentric, flexible institutions, operating across scales, which are required to build resilience in such settings.


map of Eurasia showing cases in Sardinia, Kenya and China
Adapted from ‘Relief map of Eurasia’ by Giorgi Balakhadze (cc by-sa 4.0)

PASTRES is working with pastoralists in Isiolo, Kenya, Sichuan and Qinghai in China, and Sardinia, Italy. Browse the headings below to find out more about pastoralists in each region and the uncertainties they face.

Isiolo, Kenya

Herder with livestock
A herder with his livestock in Isiolo. Photo: ILRI (cc by-nc 2.0)

Isiolo in Kenya has extensive, dry, lowland areas, populated by Borana pastoralists. Subject to frequent droughts, predicted to increase through climate change impacts, these areas are classic non-equilibrium rangeland systems.

However, pastoralism has dramatically changed in the area over the last 30 years. There has been a growing privatisation of rangelands, wells and water points, alongside settlement and growth of crop production, although the wider transhumant system persists, and is important for those with very large, commercial herds, managed by hired herders. A process of social differentiation has accelerated in the past decades, with significant out-migration from the area and important gendered impacts.

Many Borana pastoralists now combine agriculture with small-scale livestock production, often linked to off-farm activities in small towns.  In the last decade new investors have also been acquiring land in the region, removing irrigable land for large-scale agricultural estates, livestock ranching and mining, as well as investments in renewable energy wind power schemes. The region is in much flux, and has been subject to episodic periods of violent conflict over particular ‘key resources’ for grazing or agriculture, linked to a process of securitisation.

To find out more, read the blog post 'Pastoralism under pressure in northern Kenya'

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Sichuan and Qinghai, China

Woman and child with yaks
A woman and her son from a pastoralist community. Photo: Gongbu Zeren

China’s rapid economic growth, including towns and cities in the region, has shifted economic incentives, with opportunities for out-migration from pastoral areas growing. There has been increasing marketization of the traditional pastoral system, focused on yak and sheep production.

In addition, state policies have encouraged individualisation and privatisation of rangelands, which has dramatically affected transhumant montane system. New institutional structures have been imposed, which encourage a more individualised, settled livelihood, connected to the market. State-led environmental policies aimed at protecting watersheds and other ecosystem services have encouraged destocking, sedentarisation and the seeking of alternative livelihoods.

Some have benefited from these changes, but not everyone. A process of social differentiation is on-going, with major age and gender consequences. This has resulted in changes in livelihoods, with greater diversification, resulting in new links to pastoral production. Responses to marketization, combined with population pressure, have been varied. In some areas, there have been innovations that aim to reinstate the benefits of communally-managed rangelands, through innovations in the individual quota system. Meanwhile, climate change is predicted to result in greater variability in temperature and precipitation as well as local natural disasters, with consequences for both ecology and economics.

For more information, read the blog post 'Negotiating uncertainties on the Tibetan plateau in China'.

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Sardinia, Italy

Sheep in the shade of a tree in Sardinia
Genna Silana - Nuoro - Sardegna - Italia 2014. Credit: Massimo Frasson (cc by-sa 2.0)

Sardinia is a major centre for pastoral production in Europe, notably sheep, but also cattle and horses, involving transhumant movement to mountain pastures in the summer. Sardinia is a traditional pastoral society within the Mediterranean setting, providing important employment and income earning opportunities.

Over the last century the pastoral economy has undergone many changes, but remains as the main driver of the Sardinian economy, in terms of production and service provision. Initiated by Roman investors in the late 1800s, 60 percent of Sardinia’s famous Pecorino Romano cheese is exported. In recent decades traditional pastoral systems have undergone important restructuring, with socio-economic and environmental implications, including significant outmigration and changes in ecologies due to shifts in grazing patterns. Increasing fodder and input prices have seen a recent shift back to extensive production.

After a period of crisis, elements of the pastoral system have revived in recent years: new small-scale producers have started up businesses; there is a greater involvement of a foreign, migrant workforce in herding; the agro-pastoral economy has diversified and there is an increasing interest in high-value nature conservation linked to ecotourism, as Sardinian agro-pastoral landscapes represent a major attraction for tourists visiting the island.

To find out more, read the PASTRES blog post 'The changing dynamics of Sardinian pastoralism: why an uncertainty lens is important'

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Cross-cutting questions

The project also aims to answer some questions about how different actors deal with uncertainty and resilience which cut across the themes and cases described above.

  • What is the role of models and risk assessment approaches: closing down to prediction or opening up to uncertainty?
  • Who are the key actors in managing uncertainty? Who are the ‘reliability professionals’?
  • How does mobility affect the relationships between people, territory and the state?
  • How does the penetration of globalised, financialised relations affect local societies and economies?
  • What forms of experimentation, innovation and adaptation are required to respond to rapid, uncertain change?
  • What types of early warning, rapid response investments are required to allow for flexible responses?
  • How can hybrid regulatory/governance systems emerge that go beyond technocratic-managerial control?

Read more about what we can learn from pastoralism about how to respond to global uncertainties.