Accustomed to their age-old freedom to roam, the nomadic pastoralists of Uganda are now having to cope with a law that seeks to settle and 'modernise' their communities.
Pastoralist societies in Uganda are increasingly facing market-driven demands to 'settle down' on a piece of land – pressures that are not only disrupting their centuries-old lifestyle but also taking a toll on the indigenous, long-horned Ankole cows.
'Before the idea of owning a box (owning land) came about, our cows used to move freely across boundaries. This was better use of land,' says Richard Mugisha from the pastoralist community of Ankole Region in Mbarara District.
Now, he says, government policies have turned land into just another commodity – something to buy and sell in the market.
The impact of these policies on the nomads and pastoralists of Uganda has been far-reaching, as is evident in a visit to the Ankole region.
Ankole is the land of the Banyankole people. Five Districts in Western Uganda form the Ankole region – Mbarara, Ntungamo, Ibanda, Bushenyi and Kiruhura. Around 20 per cent of the region's population of just over two million are pastoralists. According to some estimates, across Uganda pastoralists occupy 40 per cent of the land.
Pastoralists are one-time nomadic cattle keepers who have largely settled down and as well as keeping cattle, are now involved in farming. However, some pastoralist communities do continue to maintain a nomadic lifestyle, moving from one area to another.
Ankole pastoralists traditionally occupy and use land by virtue of family, clan and community membership. This system of landholding is known as communal tenure. The system guarantees rights for farming and seasonal grazing, access to water and firewood, burial grounds and other community activities, but does not grant ownership of land.
These traditions started to be challenged in 1993, when the Ugandan government, wishing to encourage the modernisation and commercialisation of agriculture, initiated a major land restructuring move. The policy slowly led to a transformation in land use among pastoralists from communal land to private ownership. A new farming pattern emerged, that of paddocking cattle.
The government policy was institutionalised through the introduction of the 1998 Land Act, aimed at rolling out modernisation in the countryside.
The modern system of land ownership supported the commercialisation of the pastoralists' lifestyle by helping them market dairy and other products from their cattle. The Ankole pastoralists could use profits from their business to educate their children. Or so ran the theory.
Land and cattle – 'commodities' now
But the net result, according to pastoralists such as Richard Mugisha, was that both land and cattle in Ankole began to be seen as commodities, which in turn further disrupted local pastoralist lifestyles.
'The crudest scheme of the modern era is to use modern systems because pastoralists lose out completely. Pastoralists do not believe in land segmentation, this is not their sense of ownership,' says Mugisha. 'Not only humans but cows too need to be able to move freely from one area to another,' he says.
If a particular area experiences dry spells, pastoralists must have the freedom to move to another area in search of water and greener pastures. 'This whole idea of boundaries has killed nomadic pastoralism in Ankole.'
There are experts who believe the 1998 Land Act hasn't even succeeded in achieving its aim of boosting agricultural production through private land ownership.
'Very few individuals can say they are buying land to grow export crops,' says Nyangabyaki Bazaara, executive director of the Kampala-based Centre for Basic Research, in a research paper titled Politics, Legal Land Reform and Resource Rights in Uganda.
'There are instances where fathers have put land titles in the names of their children as a kind of insurance that they will have a basis of survival well into the dim future. Such fathers bought land not because they wanted to farm it but because they were guaranteeing the survival of the family across generations,' says Bazaara.
Bazaara argues that land tenure in Uganda cannot be a uniform system, chiefly because the idea clashes with the way nomads and pastoralists live their lives. For a pastoralist, land is communal and cannot be individually owned.
The lives of pastoralists are inextricably linked with cattle – notably the local long-horned cows known as Ankole cows. Other than Uganda, this breed is only found in Rwanda and Burundi.
Ankole cows are beautiful animals with a graceful walk and pastoralists say they cement human relationships as they are passed on from one generation to the next, symbolising the continuity of the family line.
'Paddocking cattle has changed our mode of grazing,' says Enock Tumwesigye, 62, a pastoralist from Mbarara District, referring to a grazing system where cattle are enclosed on a piece of land. To further enforce paddocking authorities have sealed off large portions of land from cattle grazing. Pastoralists now have to buy grazing land – and the title to it – in order to ensure the survival of their cattle.
Tumwesigye comes from a long line of cattle-keepers, but the way he tends his cattle is radically different from the cattle-keeping style of his forefathers. His half-hectare farm, located 15 kilometres from Mbarara town in the midst of woodland savanna and hills, is fenced off. He has 26 cattle on his farm – and they are all 'exotic' or non-local breeds. He says that the current system of paddocking does not suit the Ankole cow and he was forced to sell his herd.
There are visible signs of drought around Enock Tumwesigye's farm. The grass has dried up, as has the farm well that he uses to water his cows.
One area that has been declared out of out of bounds for pastoralists is the Lake Mburo Game Reserve in Mbarara. Before being listed as a national park in 1983, the Ankole pastoralists grazed their cattle there. Now the cows are not allowed inside the park. Richard Mugisha says 'When you stop cows from feeding there, where else do they go to during dry spells?'
For the better?
Sam Mwandha, Director of Field Operations with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, agrees that nomadic pastoralism in Ankole is dying out, but thinks this is for the better.
'Yes, nomadism is good – but shouldn't people go to school for instance? People have settled down, they sleep better and they have acquired property. Some of these policies might disappoint some people but they should look at the good things these policies have brought,' he says.
It is not in Uganda alone that pastoralists face such challenges. Elliot Fratkin, an academic, says the trend is common across many East African countries.
'Over the past thirty years, East African livestock-keeping peoples have faced large challenges to their economies and traditional ways of life. In the savanna regions of Southern Kenya and Tanzania, Maasai and other groups have lost land to expanding farming populations, private ranches, wheat estates, and the expansion of tourist game reserves,' Fratkin notes in his research paper, East African Pastoralism in Transition: Maasai, Boran and Rendille Cases.
Fratkin says: 'Livestock pastoralism continues to offer a viable food production strategy for people living in arid regions of Africa. Development agencies and national governments should ensure access to widely held pastures, improving market conditions for livestock, and acknowledging the importance of cultivation to pastoral livelihoods.'
Richard Mugisha agrees, saying that small-scale pastoralists who use their own traditional means of agriculture produce much of the beef eaten in Uganda.