Farmer-herder conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Co-existence of farming and herding in Sub-Saharan Africa. Source: International Livestock Research Institute
Agricultural & Resource Economics (main)

August 26, 2009, 12:00 am
July 16, 2012, 8:18 pm


The study of herder-farmer relationships can be traced back as far as 1600 AD when white warriors, herders from the northern Sahel, continuously raided the black agricultural villages in the south. These acts of violence were due in large part to competition over the scarce natural resources of the Sahel.

As the Sahel expanded, herders were forced to move south during the dry season which allowed for access to the agricultural production and resources of the black farmers in the southern Sahel regions. This created conflict while competing over scarce natural resources. Conflicts are just as prevalent today with most farmer-herder conflicts occurring in the Sahel region of West Africa, a semi-arid, semi-humid region that is conducive to both agriculture and pastoralism. Some specific regions where farmer-herder conflicts of varying degrees tend to occur and have been studied include: Northwest Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, the Inland Niger Delta, Ghana, the Republic of Senegal, and Burkina Faso.

In the course of the twentieth century, many large areas are being expropriated for conservation in the East African rangelands. As a result of this sudden increase of controlled land, there have been both positive and negative effects in these rangeland regions. For centuries, this region, as well as the other rangelands in Africa have long been dominated and occupied by pastoralists. Due to the large variety of ethnic groups present in this region, there has been a great deal of conflict over the control of resources, the primary resources being water and fertile land use. Throughout the history of the rangelands, ownership of the land has been contested, and there have been several factors contributing to this disagreement. The main influencing issues are migration into the land, resource competition, conflict between herders and farmers, as well as negotiated access to the rangelands.

There have been countless efforts to improve and conserve the environmental state of the African rangelands, most of which have been ineffective at best. The people and organizations involved with providing assistance to this region have largely failed to take into account the future environmental sustainability and the impact that they may have on it. There are several essential points that are necessary in developing a good environmental policy in the rangelands of Africa. The first of these points is that it is important to bring together all levels of understanding. Not only do the government and the outside organizations need to be involved, it is important to also include the local people and the people being affected by the policy. Also, collecting the necessary data to be able to formulate the appropriate questions to solve the problems is vital.

Conflict is seemingly unavoidable in the rangelands of Africa because of the push to control the territory as well as the need for land. With the numerous unsuccessful efforts to improve the conservation and state of the rangelands, there have been many more conflicts that have emerged.

Environmental Security

The theory of Environmental Security emerged after the Cold War as knowledge increased about environmental degradation. The theory examines the degradation of the world’s resources, regardless of borders, or political boundaries in hopes of creating a sustainable future. The decline of environmental conditions has been accelerated because of human action through the creation of pollution, deforestation, and soil erosion, among other things. This loss of environmental stability threatens all humans causing the environment to be unpredictable and difficult to control. This unpredictability leads to the increased likelihood of conflict between groups. Herders and farmers are two such groups that are constantly embroiled in conflict over resources. According to the theory of Environmental Security, the instability in the availability of land and resources has created conflicts due to scarcity. Because the amount on land is limited, farmers attempt to exclude herders from grazing lands and other resources in order to grow crops, and these interactions result in violent and nonviolent conflicts.

Political Ecology

Contrary to many conventional theories, like Environmental Security, political ecology uncovers the root of conflicts between sub-Saharan farmers and herders. These conflicts are not only caused by changes in or limited access to natural resources, but also by the policies that determine the land uses (Causes of land-use and land-cover change). These policies are decided by a number of factors, such as import and export economies immigrants’ and locals' rights of access, and many others. These causes can be explored through the practice of political ecology’s five most common focuses: multi-level analysis of the relationship between humans and the environment, a historical approach that focuses on the transformation of indigenous resource management strategies as they face {C}globalization, the level of influence local governments have on rural economies and their land uses, examining the decisions make by individuals in response to changes in both natural and social environments, and an understanding of the variance between the same issues of different regions. Farmer-herder conflicts can simply be explained by the fact that one side will always have a greater political power, whether it is traditional, instated by colonialists, or policies of the current administration (both local and international). Through political ecology it is deduced that conflicts between herders and farmers are due to the imbalance in the rights of access to resources, rather than the lack of resources due to natural causes such as population, or climate change.

Variables influencing farmer-herder conflicts

Variables supported by both Environmental Security and Political Ecology are used to validate conflicts of interest and competition between farmers and herders in sub-Saharan rangelands.

Individual Decision Making

Farmer-herder conflicts are very complex and have varying degrees of intensity and frequency. Many factors influence this variation. One of the factors that influence farmer-herder conflicts is the role individual decision making plays in these conflicts. Informed by past experience, farmers and herders are strategic individuals within these communities who often make decisions based mainly on the personal costs and benefits. Supporting the presence of another group, intentionally damaging crops, and exploiting administrative powers are just a few examples of how farmers and herders, given their social, cultural, political, and economic constraints, often make decisions based on personal motivations, even at an expense to their own group or community.

Farmers and herders are not homogeneous groups and the movement toward {C}agropastoralism by some individuals has influenced the decisions they make. Some farmers have begun keeping livestock. Herders will sometimes watch farmers' livestock and farmers will allow herders to use their land in exchange. Therefore, both groups benefit. However, the presence of herders can be detrimental to other farmers who do not have this beneficial relationship with herders, since the herds sometimes destroy their crops. Administrative officials can often benefit from the presence of the herders and will make decisions that allow them to stay. Those who benefit from the presence of herders will potentially make decisions that are helpful to the herders and allow them to stay in a region, even if it is costly to other farmers.

Intentional crop damage is another example of the role individual decision making plays in farmer-herder conflicts. Crop damage by livestock is very costly to farmers and damages relationships between farmers and herders in an area. However, the crops provide a better source of nutrition for the animals, especially during the dry season when sufficient grazing areas may be scarce. Herders who are also watching farmers' livestock may only send their own animals in to the fields to feed and not the farmers' animals. While the community as a whole suffers from these actions, a few individuals make this choice for personal benefit.

Some administrative authorities will also base decisions on the potential for personal gain, even at a cost to the community as a whole. Since authorities can sometimes personally profit by exploiting competing interests over natural resources between farmers and herders of a region, administrative authorities will create or perpetuate farmer-herder conflicts. They often benefit financially, usually from accepting bribes, by mediating the judiciary process involved in attempting to resolve a farmer-herder conflict.

Individual decisions in farmer-herder conflicts are often based on personal interests and motivations that disregard the potential consequence to the community. Therefore, individual decisions can influence the occurrence and intensity of farmer-herder conflicts.

Social and Cultural Factors

Source: Greenfacts

Most farmer and herder ethnic groups in a region, no matter their differences, do have economic and social relationships: economically they depend on each other’s business, and socially they share schools, clinics, and water sources. Although there is interaction, the distance between these two cultures (farmers tend to be more localized, and herders tend to live on the outskirts) keeps them from finding a common ground, causing conflict. For example, the generally Moslem Fulbe migrant herders and the indigenous Christian farmers of northern Ghana are thought to carry prejudices against each other, whether it be over dress, religion, or livelihood practices. Regardless of these differences, the physical distance between the two causes misunderstandings, hostility, and prejudices. Some farmer and herder cultures go as far as creating their own social rules that guarantee little cooperation or contact with other farming or herding groups around them. Fortunately, as seen in most cultures, the youth are going to school with all different ethnicities. As this continues, the prejudices between ethnic groups will decline; hopefully leading to peaceful compromises when it come to farmer-herder land uses. On the other hand, farmer-herder conflicts are now rising within the teen schoolmates because of he opinions and activities of their parents. For example, herders may be hired under strict, unfair, and poorly paid contracts by farmers to care for their cattle. As children of hired herders become upset over the exploitation of their parents, they carry on the conflicts between farmers and herders. In the same manner, the children of farmers are brought up thinking that herders are nothing but thieves (both of land and cattle).

In terms of any migrant group, whether they are farmers or herders, there is that historical idea that things were better before “they” came. The cultural pride of land ownership or cattle keeping is so strong in sub-Saharan cultures, that any person or group that may decrease your family’s opportunity of economic growth is threatening, and therefore conflict is created to run migrants out.

International and Local Government Policy

The governments present in the Sahel region of Africa have implemented various policies in order to counteract land degradation, or improve land conditions in an attempt to make the environment more conducive to supporting larger populations. Outside organizations have also involved themselves in this attempt for improvement, and overwhelmingly these policies have had a generally negative effect, resulting in land misuse, and further degradation.

Farmer-herder conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa have been observed for centuries. Many of the policies that have been implemented were operating on the assumption that pastoralist movements and life ways were major contributors of environmental degradation due to overgrazing. Pastoralists move from one area to another in an attempt to find an appropriate amount of vegetation and water with which to sustain their herds and families. For quite some time, researchers believed these herds overgrazed the lands they occupied, then moved to a new area and repeated the cycle of stripping the land of plant life. Many scientists believed this process of continuous overgrazing contributed to the spread of desertification.

Although this theory is still popular among many scholars, recent research has been dedicated to disproving this notion, in favor of mobility. Researchers now believe that the restriction of herder mobility causes intense degradation in specific tracts of land. Through movement, herds are able to relocate before doing significant damage to an area of land.

Some governments have imposed forced boundaries on pastoral groups, restricting them to an area which quickly runs out of vegetation, forcing herders to seek outside sources of grain feed for their animals. This way of sedentary life forces many former pastoralists into poverty as they are unable to sustain the necessary level of nutrition for their families, and pay for the grain used to feed their livestock.

Herders may not be forced to remain on specific tracts of land, but the actions of the government, farmers, and various outside organizations have essentially limited land access, so much so that movement is no longer feasible. Many African countries and wildlife organizations have restricted land use through the creation of wildlife preserves. It is often advantageous for African governments to allow foreigners to influence the distribution of things such as national park land because the government often receives some sort of monetary compensation. Farmers have always restricted grazing movement, but as the population swells, more land is needed produce crops, further limiting herders.

These factors all contribute to the conflicts between herders and farmers, causing them to come in contact with one another as both fight for their livelihood.

Limited Access to resources and climate change

The ability of the rangeland environment to sustain human and animal populations relies heavily on the scarcity of resources. Due to the limited availability of water (Society and water resources) in this environment, the rangelands are very vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall. Conflicts of competition between two groups are to be expected whenever necessary resources are in short supply. Both herders’ and farmers’ livelihoods depend on their access to the same resources, especially water, and in times of climactic stress, such as a drought, environmental pressures increase the possibility of conflict between the two groups as they compete for resources.

Although climate change (Africa collection: Climate Change) is expected in any environment, that which is found in the Sahel region of Africa has begun to show a somewhat unexpected trend in the past few decades. Drought has become more frequent as the rainfall patterns change. Through the late onset and premature cessation of seasonal rains, in combination with smaller volumes of rain, drought has become more frequent, severe, and protracted. The degradation of viable land in addition to the droughts in the Sahel has provoked migration of pastoralists. In arid and semi-arid land, which represents 60% of Africa’s total land mass, the rainy season consists of a three to four month period, but increasing trends of prolonged droughts causes this land to be unable to sustain both pastoralists and farmers. The resulting changes in the ecosystems effect pastoral groups causing them to move more frequently in search of grazing land and water resources.

The resource depletion is more evident during the dry season. Although it is to the advantage of both herders and farmers to allow livestock to graze on the farmlands after the harvest, allowing the fields to be fertilized by the manure; there is evident competition among herders and farmers over the post-harvest stubble. Among herding groups resource scarcity, which manifests itself as the depletion of, increased demand for, and unequal distribution of resources, is a cause of competition especially over permanent rights to water resources.

The population growth in the Sudan-Sahelian zone has contributed to the southern migration of many pastoralists in order to avoid conflicts in the densely populated Sahel region. This has in turn expanded the conflict zone increasing the potential for more conflicts. The areas of Kenya and Uganda have some of the world’s largest population growth rates, as high as 2.9 percent annual increase. These high population increases affect rural and urban areas, resulting in overcrowding. Farmers must move to less productive areas in order to find available land to farm and raise their families. Moreover, many pastoralists, such as the Maasai, continue to increase their amount of cultivation which leads to a decrease in pasture and water resources. In the arid North, population growth in both humans and their herds has increased the competition among pastoral neighbors for both pasture land, and water, which has lead to armed attacks.

Source: OCHA UN


  • Bassett, Thomas J. 1988. The political ecology of peasant-herder conflicts on the northern Ivory Coast. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 78(3):453-472.
  • Ellis, James E. and David M. Swift. 1988. Stability of African Pastoral Ecosystems: Alternate Paradigms and Implications for Development. Journal of Range Management 41(6):450-459.
  • Fratkin, Elliot. 2001. East African Pastoralism in Transition: Maasai, Boran, and Rendille Cases. African Studies Review Vol. 44, No. 3:1-25.
  • Græger, Nina. 1996. Environmental Security?. Journal of Peace Research 33(1):109-116.
  • Hussein, K., J. Sumberg, and D. Seddon. 2000. Increasing violent conflict between herders and farmers in Africa: claims and evidence. Development policy review 17:397-418.
  • Moritz, Mark. 2006. Changing Contexts and Dynamics of Farmer-Herder Conflicts Across West Africa. Canadian Journal of African Studies 40(1): 1-40.
  • Moritz, Mark. 2006. The Politics of Permanent Conflict: Farmer-Herder Conflicts in Northern Cameroon. Canadian journal of African studies 40(1):101-126.
  • Niamir-Fuller, Maryam. 2000. Managing Mobility in African Rangelands. Electronic document, accessed April 19, 2008.
  • Tonah, Steve. 2003. Integration or exclusion of Fulbe pastoralists in West Africa: a comparative analysis of interethnic relations, state and local policies in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Journal of Modern African Studies 41(1): 91–114.
  • Turner, Matthew D. 2004. Political Ecology and Moral Dimensions of “Resource Conflicts”: The Case of Farmer-Herder Conflicts in the Sahel. Political Geography 23(7):863-889.

Further Reading

  • Bassett, Thomas J., and Koli Bi Zueli. 2000. Environmental Discourses and the Ivorian Savanna. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90(1): 67-95.
  • Bogale, Ayalneh and Benedikt Korf. 2007. To Share or Not To Share? (Non-)Violence, Scarcity and Resource Access in Somali Region, Ethiopia. Journal of Development Studies 43(4): 743-765.
  • Breusers, Mark, Suzanne Nederlof, and Teunis van Rheenen. 1998. Conflict or Symbiosis? Disentangling Farmer-Herdsman Relations: The Mossi and Fulbe of the Central Plateau, Burkina Faso. The Journal of Modern African Studies 36(3): 357-380.
  • Dafinger, Andreas and Michaela Pelican. 2006. Sharing or Dividing the Land? Land Rights and Farmer-Herder Relations in Burkina Faso and Northwest Cameroon. Canadian journal of African studies 40(1): 127-151.
  • Tonah, Steve. 2006. Migrations and Farmer-Herder Conflicts in Ghana's Volta Basin. Canadian journal of African studies 40(1): 152-178.

Research contributing to this work was partially conducted by students at the Ohio State University for an Anthropology class about environmental issues in Africa. The work was conducted under close supervision by the lead author and independently reviewed by EoE Topic Editor(s). This work is a literature review of the articles cited in the reference section.


Moritz, M. (2012). Farmer-herder conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. Retrieved from