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Ecologist’s perspective on herdsmen and farmers crisis – Part 2

By Agustine Isichei
17 August 2018   |   3:53 am
Grazing by animals is a very intense form of deforestation. In most instances humans are selective when it comes to removal of vegetation and usually make room for the plants to regenerate, but as mentioned above, animals in times of scarcity eat virtually anything that comes their way, except of course the poisonous plants. So…

A member of the security forces stands next to a burnt out vehicle in the Nghar Village, near Jos on June 27, 2018, after Fulani herdsmen attacked the village. Plateau State in Nigeria has seen days of violence where more than 200 people have been killed in clashes between Berom farmers and Fulani herders, Nigeria is facing an escalation in clashes between farmers and Fulani herders over land use and resources that is deepening along religious and ethnic lines. STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP

Grazing by animals is a very intense form of deforestation.

In most instances humans are selective when it comes to removal of vegetation and usually make room for the plants to regenerate, but as mentioned above, animals in times of scarcity eat virtually anything that comes their way, except of course the poisonous plants.

So it is no exaggeration to say that desertification in West Africa has been caused mostly by overgrazing especially in the Sahel and Sudan Savannah zones.

Periodic droughts and natural disasters, and now climate change accelerate what had already been initiated by overgrazing.

Such desertification scenarios are to be found in several West African countries such as Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin Republic and Nigeria.

There may thus be some truth in the Federal Government statement that herders are from several countries.

The general trend is that with porous borders across West Africa, herders could be moving southwards hence the conflicts that are now intensifying to the point of open warfare.

Unorganised herding is most deleterious to vegetation.

First, the number of animals to be supported by a given piece of land, depending on the amount and quality of herbage present, referred to as carrying capacity, is often exceeded.

In the 1970’s and 80’s censuses of animals in Nigeria were periodically carried out.

It is doubtful if such scientific activities are undertaken now. How many cattle, sheep and goats do we have in Nigeria?

A figure of 20 million total livestock, of which cattle make up about 10 million has been given but these may just be guess work.

And what are the vegetal resources needed to support such numbers? Desertification is the final point of land degradation.

Sheet, gully and wind erosion are associated stages of the environmental degradation that is difficult to reverse.

Already several North Central states, especially Plateau, Nasarawa, Benue, Kogi and Kwara have severe erosion problems.

Apart from direct consumption of plants, trampling by animals accelerates soil erosion.

The Federal Government has made several statements that point to its policy directions in the farmers/herdsmen crisis.

One of such statements credited to the Honourable Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh was that the Federal Government was going to import grass from Brazil.

I do not know if this is happening but that is curious and not totally surprising.

Not surprising because we have this mentality of importing almost anything we need.

The idea is curious because it is known in scientific circles that ranches in South America enriched their range lands with African grass species.

Nigeria has grass and other plant species that are nutritious and can meet our needs for animal fodder.

These grasses need some scientific input such as the biotechnology to multiply them and genetic manipulation to improve their nutritive quality.

Such steps have been taken by the International Livestock Research Institute based in Nairobi and one of its predecessor organizations, the International Livestock Centre for Africa, ILCA, that was based in Ethiopia and whose Nigerian station carried extensive research on fodder.

Again, one of the mandates of the National Animal Production Research Institute, NAPRI, Shika near Zaria, founded in the 1950’s, is ‘Introduction, selection, propagation and utilization of natural and sown pastures for livestock production’.

The necessary scientific empowerment may be lacking in that the range seeding, throwing grass/herb seeds into grasslands to enrich them, is lacking.

Native tree multiplication is also not widely practised as the reproductive biology of the trees is not adequately known.

But indigenous knowledge abound as agro-forestry has been practised in Nigeria from time immemorial

Since the 1970’s and 1980’s several seed companies have emerged in Nigeria.

These companies market arable crop seeds but could now also deliver grass seeds and other plants that are useful for rehabilitation of degraded grazing lands. It is not known how they have been supported for seed production.

What that means is that available lands have to be sustainably managed by allowing re-seeded areas to recuperate while other portions are being grazed.

A landscape could thus be marked out and rotation practised in such a manner that there will always be available land for grazing. But this arrangement may not solve the problem of dry, unpalatable grass, especially in the dry season.

The way out of this is hay-making. The middle belt/north central states are most suited for this but any part of Nigeria can grow grass, harvest it when young and palatable and dry it quickly for storage for use in the dry season.

The big question is how to rapidly dry fresh grass to prevent deterioration.

In the 1980’s under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Project we tried out what we then called solar kilns and found them successful at drying grasses.

A solar kiln consisted of a black tarpaulin sheet formed into an enclosure.

This was stuffed with fresh grass and had a fan blowing air out of the enclosure.

In the 1980’s, solar panels were not common and solar-powered fans were unknown.

Colour black is an excellent energy trapper and with abundant solar energy in the north, drying will be achieved rapidly.

Rail transport and trucks and local distribution systems can easily move dry grass to any location in Nigeria.

The practices outlined here are what constitute the animal feeding aspect of ranching and is applicable to cattle and goat herds and sheep flocks.

Nigeria has an obligation to the international community to preserve the environment and to conserve vegetation, in particular.

For example, vegetation uses up carbon dioxide and thereby reduces its accumulation and ultimately mitigates global warming and re-vegetation/reforestation is recognised as a primary mitigation measure against global warming.

We should tap into the various mechanisms enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

For example, emission trading, whereby one country could support the planting of trees in another as a payment for emitted carbon dioxide, say by its factories is seen as a plausible means of earning income by less developed tropical countries.

If we convert all our vegetation zones into grazing lands, we will be denying ourselves of the potential benefits of emission trading.

This is especially true when we consider the tremendous threat posed by roaming herders to conservation areas, especially national parks and forest reserves.

It is well known by conservation area managers that herdsmen enter such areas in search of fodder for their herds.

This type of deforestation negates Nigeria’s agreed primary roles under the convention on Biological Diversity.


Professor Isichei wrote from, department of Botany, Obafemi Awolowo university, Ile-Ife