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Lessons from Pastoralists for the Time of COVID-19

By: María Fernández-Giménez, SRM Director 2018-2020 

A year ago, in June 2019, I was in the midst of a multi-country adventure in Spain and Morocco, following herders and their flocks as they moved from their winter pastures in the lowlands to their high mountain summer ranges. We often think of pastoralists, like ranchers, as isolated independent actors. Yet transhumant herders, who move long distances with their herds, are acutely aware of their interdependence—with each other, the farmers whose fields they graze in winter, the villagers whose towns they pass through, the buyers who purchase their animals. Reciprocity and mutual aid are guiding principles for these women and men. The farmer who lets the passing flock graze a fallow field and rest under shady oaks receives a Christmas lamb. The pastoralists of one county who welcome flocks fleeing drought or a winter storm in another know they can expect the same treatment when they find themselves in disaster’s path. They know their fates are intertwined, so they tend the bonds between them carefully.

In this COVID-19 time, our own interdependence has never been so clear. My health depends on the actions of all my family, friends and co-workers. My behavior contributes to the well-being or ill-health of everyone in my community. This time also highlights how different parts of our food system are connected and who is most vulnerable. As meat packing plants close, hamburger shortages loom, and cattle prices dive, I reflect on the role of range livestock producers and the many other workers in our food system. Agricultural workers are essential workers, including ranchers, but also ranch hands, sheep herders, stockyard and packing plant workers, and farm workers. We have seen how sickness of packing plant workers, among the most vulnerable people in our supply chain, affects the entire food system. As a rangeland social scientist, my work often focuses on ranchers or pastoralists, and how their decisions are shaped by and affect the environment. COVID-19 causes me to think more broadly about how a ranch and the people on it connect to our wider food system. What does this connection and interdependence mean for me as a consumer, a researcher, a rangeland professional, a concerned citizen?

Like so much else, I don’t have the answer, but one thing I know. It behooves us to behave as though our actions affect the well-being of our whole community. I also see an opportunity for SRM members to reflect and to connect with a wider circle of people we depend upon for our food and health, as well as those who rely on rangelands for all they provide, often without realizing it. The lesson from pastoralists is: we can’t afford to disregard how we are all connected. We never know when we may need a neighbor’s help, so we should offer our help when the neighbor needs it. In our food system, this may mean buying direct from producers, advocating for safe working conditions and health care for agricultural workers, or doing our part to stay home and cover our faces when we must go out. The land is resilient and so are we. Our direct and indirect ties to one another make us so. Let’s tend the bonds that make us strong and act as if what we do matters, because it does.

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