Novelty, uncertainty, and adaptability: Risk perceptions and coping strategies of kenyan pastoralists in a rapidly changing world
Many dryland pastoralist systems in Africa are facing rapid, complex, and novel suites of environmental, social, and political change, which compromise the adaptive capacities that impart resilience in these social-ecological systems. Historically, large herd sizes and herd mobility were key strategies for the Laikipia Maasai of Kenya to cope with droughts and high spatiotemporal variability in forage abundance. Over several decades, loss of land, restricted mobility, increasing human populations, and more frequent droughts are drivers that have resulted in smaller herd sizes and decreased productivity of remaining rangelands. Faced with novel environmental conditions and inadequate herds to support livelihoods, diversification into dryland agriculture arose in 2011 as a potential bet hedging (and survival) strategy. However, entering a novel livelihood activity is itself fraught with uncertainties, and could in fact increase risk exposure and vulnerability rather than ameliorate it. In 2012 and 2013, we interviewed community members who had begun riverside irrigated maize cropping, those who had tried and quit, and those who never tried. We assessed perceptions of different risk and uncertainties, how people coped with those uncertainties, and implications for social-ecological vulnerability.
We organized our analysis by considering forms of uncertainties (biophysical, economic, and social) that pose risks, as well as degrees of uncertainty (ranging from knowable costs to surprises) associated with risk types. By 2012, 133 individuals had begun farming, yet 60% had quit by 2013, and only 7 farms were active in 2014. 83% of farmers sold stock to pay startup costs, and only 5% received advice from extension agents or experienced farmers. The dominant reasons for quitting were input costs and household labor constraints, yet farmers had so little information at the outset, that potentially knowable costs essentially became uncertainties or even surprises to the new farmer. While most interviewees were concerned about water supply, nobody discussed ways to mitigate risk exposure by reducing water demand, and we observed no conservation agriculture techniques or dryland crop varieties in use. We also reflect on other key pastoralist adaptations to variable dryland environments: norms of cooperation and reciprocity. This system in transition is facing substantial institutional uncertainty, with breakdowns of customary norms of enforcement and individualization of decision-making. These trends may substantially alter approaches and capacity to cope with environmental uncertainty at both the household and the community level.