Luckily, the paper got published on the same day as I got grant applications rejected from the Research Council of Norway.
Why bring that up? Because the paper and one of the grant applications have some obvious parallels.
The paper documents why cooperation is vital for Tibetan pastoralists: it increases control of herds, reduces individual household’s labour demand and increases the potential for economic diversification.
The grant application extends this aspect: it wants to comparatively investigate pastoral cooperation by taking as its starting point that cooperative herding groups are a necessary component of pastoral life.
The paradox is that while it is almost impossible for pastoral households to maintain production without cooperative labour investment and mutual help from other households, a comparative perspective of cooperative herding group formation is currently lacking.
Moreover, while cooperation is widely documented, it is treated in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. For example, it has been used as an explanation for why there is no relationship between household labour investment and pastoral production (see this paper).
Furthermore, herding groups have been described as fluid: changing composition from year to year and between seasons. Thus, they have been viewed as less important than more extensive and more political, groupings.
My personal point of view that despite the instability of herding units, they represent an essential building block of nomadic societies because they are concerned with daily cooperation.
More to the point, we know relatively little about them: what evidence we have represent a snapshot in time. We lack longitudinal data as well as data concerning how cooperation is changing as a consequence of changes in land tenure.
While getting grant rejections sucks, I still think this is a worthwhile project that I’ll pursue.
Anyone interested in collaborating on such a project is welcome to contact me.
A recent paper argues that climate is more important than density in the reindeer husbandry in Norway. Using the same analysis, I find that reindeer density is essential: In high-density environments, average varit (1.5-year-old bucks) carcass weight is 8 kg lower, and calf carcass weight is 4 kg lower compared to low-density environments.
In short, the paper aims to challenge the official view of overstocking and reframe reindeer herding in terms of non-equilibrium ecology.
Their focus of attack is the Røros model which, according to the authors, hinges on
“… classic ecological equilibrium models where there is a clear unequivocal relationship between animal densities, production, and carcass weights”
As such the article fits nicely in a growing trend: rather than investigating problems currently facing pastoralists, the main point is to establish systems as non-equilibrium, and thus all issues are assumed resolved, or at least externally caused (for an excellent example from the reindeer husbandry in Norway, check out ‘Conceptualising resilience in Norwegian Sámi reindeer pastoralism‘).
In another paper, some of the same authors have, for example, argued that reindeer herding in Norway is better characterised as a non-equilibrium system
“…where herbivore populations fluctuate randomly according to external influences, [and] the concepts of carrying capacity and overgrazing have no discernible meaning”.
‘Productivity beyond density’ goes at least further in attempting to quantify the relative importance of non-equilibrium factors (such as climate) and equilibrium factors (such as density).
While the paper is well-written and exciting, I find it a bit strange that in the only quantitative analysis they present the sole focus is on statistically significant effects of precipitation and temperature for the carcass weights of reindeer:
While the analysis shows indeed that climate factors (precipitation: all the daily observation in the stated period and growing degree days [GDD]) are significant, the discussion of the table completely fails to address two critical factors:
They never discuss whether the variables measuring climate is correlated or not (as they are monthly based, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they are).
High or even moderate, collinearity is problematic when effects are weak (as the climate effect sizes indicate). If collinearity is ignored, it is possible to end up with a statistical analysis where nothing is significant, but were dropping one predictor may make others significant, or even change the sign of estimated parameters.
The point is technical; it would be interesting to see how these potential problems were accounted for.
Concerning effect size, the most substantial effect by far is that of density: -0.16 kg for calves and -0.32 kg for varit (1.5-year-old bucks).
In effect, this has a considerable impact on the carcass weights in high-density vs low-density environments
Keep in mind that they do not provide information concerning variable transformation, so I take it for granted that the intercept represents average carcass weights when every other variable is at zero. I also take for granted that all variables are continuous. Moreover, not all of the data was in the supplemental material so I couldn’t re-analyse the data properly.
In short, at density 0 average calf carcass weight is 18.52 kg and average varit carcass weight is 25.34 kg.
The paper does not indicate the range of density utilised in this analysis, but Fig. 5 presents the range for mainland districts (which are the same districts used in table) to be from 0 to 25.
Disregarding the climate parameters (since there are no interactions and the range of the climate parameters are not presented) density has a significant effect in high-density environments:
Calves: 18.52 – 0.16 X 25 = 14.52 kg
Varit: 25.34 – 0.32 X 25 = 17.34 kg
In short, the model in Table 1 predicts that the difference in varit carcass weight between a low-density environment and a high-density environment is 8 kg. For calf carcass weight, the model predicts a difference of 4 kg.
While I fully agree with the authors that an over-emphasis on density and herd size is too simplistic when modelling pastoral production, it is bizarre that the above is not communicated at all.
Part of the problem, I think, stems from the simplified representation of non-equilibrium ecology. Concerning Africa and Asia, for example, they write “…a wholesale paradigm shift from equilibrium to non-equilibrium modelling took place from the early 1990s” (p. 9).
He mainly focused on periodic events such as droughts (a density-independent factor) and more persistent factors such as herd size (a density-dependent factor)
In other words, he investigated the degree to which density-dependent and density-independent factors explained herd size fluctuations (data for 60 years).
In short, he found:
In years with high precipitation, the population of cattle approaches a ceiling, which he terms the carrying capacity. As density increases, the birth rate drops, and mortality rates increases (although they never reach equilibrium and the cattle population never reaches its theoretical maximum).
The cattle population never reaches a maximum because stochastic events such as droughts occur and kill off large parts. Noteworthy, the number of animals killed by these events was more substantial than what can be predicted from density-dependent factors alone.
In the long term, it thus looks like non-equilibrium factors have the most significant impacts on cattle populations. Still, equilibrium factors are essential in years without stochastic climatic effects and when the population is high.
Scoones’ investigation show what seems now to be forgotten:
It is unlikely that any system is characterised by either equilibrium or non-equilibrium factors alone, but rather that they both operate on a continuum.
“To understand the effects of climate change on nomadic pastoralists, it is thus necessary to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy of characterising pastoral system as equilibrial (density dependence: livestock and pastures are regulated by grazing pressure) or non-equilibrial (density independence: livestock and pastures are limited by external factors such as climate) and look at the interplay between density dependent and density independent factors”
The debate about reindeer husbandry in Norway is characterised by two contrasting views.
On one hand is the prevailing view of overstocking and rangeland degradation.
On the other hand, is the view that overstocking and overuse represents a misreading of the Arctic landscape that perpetuates a dominant crisis narrative that functions as “… an enduring ‘social fact’, whose narrative reality is in large part decoupled from its supposed scientific basis” (Benjaminsen et al. 2015:228).
While the overstocking perspective is based on a presumed ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the other perspective argue that reindeer herding is characterised as a non-equilibrium system
“…where herbivore populations fluctuate randomly according to external influences, [and] the concepts of carrying capacity and overgrazing have no discernible meaning” (ibid.:223).
People rely on one another in fundamental ways, but cooperation in groups can be fragile. Every day, we face tensions between acting in a socially responsible manner and following our own self-interest. These situations are called social dilemmas and they come in varying shades of subtlety, from littering and eBay to overpopulation and climate change. Overcoming these dilemmas can make all the difference, especially for marginalised groups such as pastoralists – people who make their living from herding animals.
Pastoralists use about a quarter of the world’s land for grazing their herds. Nowadays, all over the world, governments are privatising many of their pastures, and so herders must work together in increasingly fragmented places.
We wanted to learn how groups of Saami reindeer herders living in Norway’s Arctic Circle worked together. Our study, just published in the journal Human Ecology, found that cooperation pivoted around the ‘siida’: a…
In connection with the project “The Erosion of Cooperative Networks and the Evolution of Social Hierarchies: A Comparative Approach” and NIKU‘s 20th anniversary, a workshop will be arranged on Wednesday 18th of February in Tromsø, Norway.