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Spatial mobility implies a human movement towards resources, by contrast to the occidental-capitalist way of life in which resources are moved to and concentrated in the places where people are located. It is one of the ways that people respond to uncertain and changing environmental conditions. In some arid and highly variable environments there may be no fixed pattern to people’s movements, also known as nomadism. However, mobility takes many other forms, including regular seasonal movements or transhumance, and permanent or semi-permanent movements (‘migration’) . Spatial mobility has long been a livelihood strategy for rangeland peoples, as it was for all the people in the world before agriculture was developed about 10,000 years ago. Although traditional nomadic ways of life are still strong in some areas, they tend to be in decline worldwide due to modernization, intensification of land use, and conflicts about land ownership and with wildlife conservation goals. However, in some cases, new transformed forms of mobility are on the rise.
Mobility is at the heart of the distinctive cultures of peoples whose ancestry and heritage is in arid, semi-arid and mountainous areas. It is an indivisible component of indigenous people’s identity and spirituality, as well as their nature and territories. Mobility is a rational strategy for getting access to water, food, forage or other needs that are not always available in the same place or time due to landscape, climatic or seasonal variability. This strategy helps rangelands people to manage the risk that biophysical variability imposes on their livelihoods. It can promote recovery of plants (including pastures and timber), soil, fauna, and water after human use, preventing
these resources from being permanently degraded. Thus, human mobility can contribute to sustainable use of natural resources. Biodiversity and the ecosystem services of rangelands have often co-evolved with human mobility
For some peoples, spatial mobility is related to hunting, fishing and gathering activities of family groups in which people move among favoured camping and living areas. This may be combined with growing crops in small areas (for example corn, beans, manihot, quinoa in parts of South America). For other peoples, spatial mobility is related to pastoral nomadism, in which people move around with domesticated livestock, or following wild herbivores migration or movements. Some pastoralists practice transhumance - regular seasonal movements between pasture areas that they have used for many centuries with long periods each year spent living at focal sites. Others move more opportunistically, following the pattern of rainfall. Strategies are influenced by the type of livestock, topography, climate and availability of water and forage. Some pastoral nomads are also hunters and gatherers. In all cases, mobile peoples’ livelihoods rely on their intimate knowledge of water sources and the ecological dynamics of food resources and pastures. Their harvesting, pastoralist practices and ceremonial practices are directed at sustaining these resources. Indigenous people do not separate nature and people, unlike western cultures: taking care of nature and the environment is also taking care of themselves.
Customary forms of mobility have often been portrayed by people from the settled cultures that dominate most of the world as irrational, primitive and incompatible with modernization and
private property. Also, government goals are often underpinned
by neo-liberal philosophies that present discrete individual,
family or corporate-owned parcels of private property as the
optimal institution for economic development and ‘progress’.
Many governments have encouraged, or forced, mobile peoples
to take up a settled way of life generally because governments
want the indigenous lands to be privatized and owned by
the dominant culture. Despite these attitudes, elements of
nomadism have been adopted in ‘modern’ forms of pastoralism
such as are practiced by ranchers or livestock-station owners in
the rangelands of colonized countries. For example, in Australia,
‘travelling stock routes’ were established in the early days of
European colonization as easements to enable livestock to be
legally moved on foot between grazing areas across privatelyowned
or leased rangelands . Now, most livestock are
transported in trucks. Companies may own several rangeland
grazing properties and move livestock between them, depending
on where forage is available. Contemporary livestock owners also
now against their cattle on properties owned by other people
when seasonal conditions on their own properties are poor.
These kinds of ‘modern’ practices show the enduring importance
of mobility as part of a portfolio of strategies to manage resource
variability in rangelands [3,4].
In nations such as Australia, Argentina and Tanzania,
nomadic or transhumant indigenous peoples’ way of life has
been very greatly disrupted by colonization. Indigenous peoples
were not recognized by colonizers as owners of their traditional
territories and their land was taken over by agriculturalists and
colonial ranchers with introduced livestock species. Land rights
and indigenous’ nations way of life continue to be disrupted in
many countries by the development of agriculture, competition
for water resources, oil and minerals extractions, tourism, or real
estate business, all of them arguing for ‘economic development’.
In South America, the introduction of the climatically versatile
transgenic soybean and of plantations of exotic pine trees for
the paper industry have led to a dramatic transformation of
rangelands into privately-owned agricultural or forestry lands, a
process that has increased land social conflicts and environmental
problems. There are also conflicts between indigenous peoples
and ‘modern’ forms of pastoralism, which can be easier to
resolve than conflicts with agriculture or mining. For example, in
Australia, livestock station owners and indigenous people have
negotiated for recognition of co-existing rights in some areas .
The establishment of conservation areas has brought
conflicts with indigenous people that traditionally lived and
owned those territories, especially when conservation areas are
managed under a paradigm that does not consider people and
their culture as compatible with goals for wildlife conservation.
For example, in Tanzania, Masai people’s lands were transformed
into large ‘wildlife conservation’ areas that have not allowed
Masai pastoralism. These kinds of conflicts continue even though
a paradigm change is well underway in conservation philosophies
. The paradigm change considers nature and people in an
integrated way: that is, cultures, languages and traditional
lifestyles should be rescued and protected together with nature.
Though sometimes criticized by indigenous people because it
can be used to deny their right to develop a ‘modern’ way of life,
this change in conservation practice has helped some groups
to achieve their aspirations for the future of their communities
and traditional lands. Under this new paradigm, different kinds
of co-management strategies can take place, with different
levels of participation of local indigenous people, including
in decisions about resource management. Some examples are
the co-managed National Parks in Argentina, in which Mapuce
people co-manage protected areas with the National Parks
Administration, and Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia ,
in which indigenous people own their land, managing it under
IUCN protected area guidelines with economic and logistical
support from the government.
Communally owned property is an alternative to private
property that is now being fostered by some governments and
NGOs in rangelands and elsewhere for ownership, or access
and use rights, and management responsibility of indigenous
territories. This form of landholding may provide for mobility
of traditional pastoralists and hunter-gatherers but restrict that
mobility to a defined area. In some legal systems, communally
owned property cannot be sold, transferred or inherited. This
can reduce the pressure exerted by corporations or governments
for economic exploitation of indigenous peoples’ lands provided
that other people respect these laws.
Access to new technologies has affected traditional forms of
mobility of some indigenous nations. For example, Aboriginal
people of central Australia move much greater distances
now than they did traditionally, by travelling in cars along
roads. One consequence is that important land management
practices, such as burning to promote regeneration of plants and
animal habitats, are now largely restricted to road corridors.
Biodiversity is suffering as a result . Aboriginal landowners
have started to use aircraft and aerial incendiaries to bring
managed fire back to areas away from roads, with the support
of regional organizations and funding from government and, in
one case, through a greenhouse gas abatement contract funded
by an energy company . New communication technologies
are also helping some pastoralists access information that aids
their livelihoods. For example, in Mongolia, herders can use text
messaging on mobile phones to get information about livestock
prices at different markets, which helps them to decide where
they should take their livestock for sale.
Loss of territory, together with loss of livelihoods and food
security, forces many indigenous people to migrate to towns and
cities looking for jobs to support their families. Alternatively, men might acquire temporary jobs in industrial agriculture at
distant locations from their homes. Because culture and territory
are indivisible components for indigenous people, these forms of
mobility generally imply family dissolution and the loss of social
bonds and traditions. Scientific research on the links between
indigenous traditional ways of life and health is limited, but it
tends to support the view that is common amongst indigenous
people that their health is closely tied to their relationship to
their land .
Internal migrations of indigenous people to urban centers
are substantial in South America and Africa. This generally
results in poverty of indigenous people and forced assimilation
to the dominant culture together with discrimination and lack of
access to education and health care. Similar strategies of ‘periodic
migration’ in the very different context of the Ecuadorean Andes
highlight that, in spite of the disruption to their traditional ways
of life, some indigenous people are also taking advantage of
markets, state programs and development interventions to build
new hybrid livelihoods . Urban migration is also a trend in
Australia. The largest populations of Aboriginal people now live
in big cities, in some cases because of dispossession from their
land. For others, it is a strategy for easier access to schools, jobs,
health care and other services that are not available on their
traditional territories; or town-living itself is the attraction due
to the loss of their own cultural traditions. A small proportion
of Aboriginal people are successful in getting jobs in towns,
generating income that maintains families and the social and
cultural values of their home region. Australian governments
have increased their expenditure on indigenous issues since 2007
aiming to ‘close the gap’ between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal
people in health and other indicators of social disadvantage.
However, this expenditure has to date had little impact on high
levels of alcoholism and violence and low levels of literacy and
employment amongst Aboriginal people .
In the Republic of Mongolia, pastoral nomads (‘herders’)
and city populations come from the same cultural traditions.
In past centuries almost all Mongolians were herders, however,
this declined with development of work in government, service
industries, mining and growth of towns and the capital city. In
the early 1990s when many Mongolians returned to a herding
way of life after private ownership of livestock was instituted
by governments following forty years of collectivized grazing.
This renewed involvement in herding has not been sustained.
The number of people employed in herding declined by nearly
10% between 2003 and 2009 even though the total population
of Mongolia grew by over 9% during this period. In 2009, only
35 % of the Mongolian workforce remained as herders [12,13].
Herding is a more difficult way of life now than it was during
the collectivized period because there is now less government
investment in infrastructure and services to help herders access
services and markets or to manage risk, such as from very severe
winter conditions (‘dzud’). Herders tend to be much less mobile
as a result . For example, state support for education of
herder’s children in boarding schools has been reduced, resulting
in more herders grazing their herds close to towns so that their
children can go to school.
In summary, nomadism has long been culturally important
to rangeland peoples and critical to sustainability of their
livelihoods and identity. The spatial mobility involved in
nomadism and transhumance is a strong adaptation to the
variability of rangeland ecosystems in space and time and
it promotes sustainable use of resources. However, it often
conflicts with capitalist/neo-liberal concepts of private property
and economic development,  and with non-cultural
conservation paradigms. Indigenous people have their own,
unique experiences and perspectives of land rights and mobility,
and they have been able to assert land rights in some situations
and to adapt their livelihoods to new opportunities that help
them keep mobility as part of their culture, in spite of difficulties.
Communally owned property and indigenous co-management
or management of conservation or rural areas with government
support are alternatives to re-think and create new cultural and
environmentally sustainable paradigms of development and
Thanks to Margaret Friedel and Jane Addison for review
comments that have improved a draft of this article. We also
thank the indigenous people who we work with for insights to
issues that impact on their lives.