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Of Permaculture and Pastoralism: Heroes and Villains?

Project: Reinventing Roots

Posted by Alice Gray about 11 years ago

Pastoralists often get a bad press as agents of environmental destruction. But is this a fair portrayal? Are farmers better than cowboys? How do we as permaculturalists relate to the nomads?

Having recently finished teaching my third PDC course in the Bedouin village of Qasr A Sir in the Negev desert of Israel, I feel inspired to raise this controversial issue with the permaculture community. I would like to state from the outset that I do not have any clear answers, and intend this article as a discursive piece to inspire debate and reflection rather than a conclusive set of arguments.

The question is as old as ‘civilization’ itself, dating back to the dawn of agriculture in the Middle East around 10 000 years ago, and the great cultural transition that began then. It is the same question that permaculture seeks to answer, perhaps the single most important question facing humanity: how should we use the land? In short it is a question of culture and the clash of cultures, of narratives, possession, dispossession and dominance, of resource rights, of nomadic culture vs. sedentary culture; of hunter-gatherer lifestyles vs. pastoralist lifestyles vs. agrarian lifestyles. Perhaps the question is a little bit more complex than that in fact, and could be better framed as: how should we relate to cultures that have a different concept of land ownership and resource usage from our own? Living and working in the midst of a Bedouin village that is undergoing a forced transition from pastoralism to settled living within a modern industrialized state, this question cannot help but crop up.


To put things into context as we experience them in the Negev: the State of Israel is pursuing an aggressive program of cultural restructuring towards its Bedouin citizens, based on undermining and outlawing their traditional means of self-sustenance and land usage, and turning them into an urban proletariat.(1) Broadly this program is based on refusing to recognize Bedouin land rights on their ancestral lands, banning grazing on what is therefore considered to be ‘State land’, labeling Bedouin hamlets and villages as ‘illegal’ and therefore demolishing homes, schools, mosques and farm structures (outhouses, chicken coops etc.), outlawing the planting of crops and demolishing ‘illegal’ plantings, denying basic services such as water, sewage and electricity to ‘unrecognized’ villages, and labeling the Bedouin themselves as ‘trespassers’ and ‘squatters’ on State lands and as an environmental threat to the Negev desert.(2)

State tractors ploughing in the barley crops of the Al Hawashleh tribe (our
hosts) outside Qasr A Sir in March of this year

Approximately 70 000 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in villages that are not recognized by the State as legal habitations and the State is currently in the process of implementing a plan (the so-called ‘Begin Plan’) to forcibly relocate at least 30 000 and possibly as many as 70 000 Bedouins from their current locations to larger Bedouin communities, including 8 townships constructed by the government and 12 ‘recently recognized’ villages (the Abu Basma municipality of which Qasr A Sir, where the PermaNegev course takes place, is one).(3) This plan is massively problematic, not only because it is not accepted by the Bedouin and will involve a high level of violent coercive measures by the State including demolitions of homes, violent evictions, arrests, tear gas etc. that will traumatize and alienate the individuals involved (many of whom are children), but also because merging one Bedouin tribe with another is socially complicated (to say the least) and because the allowance of land is not sufficient to sustain Bedouin livelihoods. The Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages has submitted an alternative plan suggesting that all existing villages should be recognized because they cover just 2.7 % of the land area of the Negev and meet ordinary government regulations for the recognition of a community as a village (a minimum population of 300 people or 40 families).(4) This plan is not accepted by the Israeli government and moves to implement the Begin Plan are already in train (the village of Al Araqib was demolished for the 49th time in February of this year for example(5), an occurrence that has unfortunately become so commonplace that it was barely even reported in the media).

Although the situation of the Negev Bedouin in Israel is somewhat special because it is interwoven with the longstanding Zionist impetus to Judaize the land of Israel (6), Israel is scarcely the only state in the world that is essentially waging a war on pastoralist culture within its borders and much of the rhetoric and justification around the issue is the same. From Africa to India, from the Middle East to Scandinavia, government programs exist to ‘improve’ and ‘develop’ pastoralists, often focusing on first sedentarising and then re-educating them so that they can become ‘useful’ members of society. Writing of Egyptian policy towards the Sinai Bedouin, Hillary Gilbert remarks that “like the landscape they inhabit they need to be ‘made legible’ before they can be incorporated into the modern Egyptian state.”(7) This is by no means a rare attitude.

The Judean desert in the spring time: the ridgeway behind Halawe village.

This impetus to ‘improve’ the pastoralists appears to be based on two main tenets, both of which are probably false. The first is that pastoralism is a backwards and anachronistic culture that historically preceded agrarianism in human cultural evolution and is a rung on the ladder of human progress towards the great pinnacle of achievement that is industrialization and the age of technology. Thus, as the ‘more evolved’ humans, it is our duty to save these people from their miserable lives and help them to become more like us. The second is that pastoralism is environmentally destructive, and as the enlightened keepers of the holy flame of Science, we must intervene to save the environment from these ignorant herders with their hairy locusts on legs. Both of these assumptions are so ingrained that they have “achieved the status of a fundamental truth so self-evident that marshalling evidence on its behalf is superfluous if not absurd”.(8) As Daniel Quinn (author of the best-selling novel ‘Ishmael’) would put it, this is ‘the murmuring of Mother Culture in our ears’, and she murmurs so continuously and so softly that we do not even know we are being influenced.

To give a few examples of accumulated prejudice close to home:

In his book ‘Innocents Abroad’ published in 1869 Mark Twain gives an account of travelling in the Jordan Valley:

Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent……….. about that ford of Jordan where the hosts of Israel entered the Promised Land with songs of rejoicing, one finds only a squalid camp of fantastic Bedouins of the desert.(9)

Writing in 1871, Palmer, a surveyor working for the Palestine Exploration fund wrote:

Wherever the Bedouin goes he brings with him ruin, violence and neglect. To call him a ‘son of the desert’ is a misnomer, half the desert owes its existence to him and many fertile plains from which he has driven its useful and industrious inhabitants become in his hand….a parched and barren wilderness. (10)


Both the Bedouin and the landscape he inhabits then are undesirable and in need of improvement. He himself is at best ‘fantastic’ and at worst ‘violent’ and ‘neglectful’, whereas the Judean desert and the Negev are ‘dismal’, ‘despondent’ and ‘unpicturesque’. We could dismiss these accounts as amusing relicts of bygone bigotry if they had not been recycled so often in the literature of the 20th century as to achieve the status of ‘fact’, in order to justify both the Zionist project itself and government policy towards the Bedouin including sedentarisation and controlling ‘overgrazing’. In short, these perceptions (which are the accounts of travelers not scientists, and are not backed up by any kind of rigorous research or data), are used to inform policy. The Bedouin is an environmental threat and his culture is backwards and uncivilized. The desert is unpicturesque and must be greened.

The Negev desert in the morning after night camping under the stars.

Trekking through a valleys by Qasr A Sir in the spring time,
a cornucopia of wild medicinal plants beneath our feet.

In 1963, Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Minister of Agriculture was quoted in the Haaretz newspaper saying:

We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat in industry, services, construction and agriculture … the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on…and does not search for vermin in public. The children would go to school with their hair properly combed. This would be a revolution, but it may be fixed within two generations … this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.

Writing in 1982, Israeli scientist Michael Evenari and his research group in their book ‘The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert’ quote Palmer (as above) without qualification. Alon Tal, writing in 2007, uses Twain’s ‘Innocents Abroad’ to shore up a claim that prior to the arrival of Zionist agricultural pioneers “millennia of overgrazing, primitive subsistence farming practices and deforestation had denuded a country whose modest precipitation leaves it almost entirely in a semi-arid/ arid classification.” (11)

Until today, these ideas inform government policies both in Israel and elsewhere that seek to transform both rangeland environments and their occupants. In Israel the Jewish National Fund uses tree plantings to ‘rezone’ grazing grounds into ‘parks’, displacing Bedouin communities.(12) Elsewhere in the world, National Parks are often declared over large areas and grazing is prohibited or severely limited within their boundaries, or at worst, the tribes that inhabit them are expelled.(13)

Rangelands currently cover 25% of the earth’s land area and approximately 20 million households (between 150 and 300 million people) still make their living as pastoralists, producing 10% of all the meat that is consumed globally.(14) Given the current global situation, whereby the amount of arid and semi-arid lands looks set to increase over the coming decades due to climate change(15), where the status quo of the dominant culture is one of environmental destruction, where industrial agriculture is laying waste to huge swathes of land every year, where attempts to ‘open up’ rangelands for agrarian development with big dams and irrigation channels have often led to environmental disaster and soil salinization(16), the fundamental assumption that ‘pastoralism is backwards’ must at least bear some re-examination.

Firstly, let us consider the history of pastoralism and the idea that it is an anachronistic culture that must inevitably give way to more ‘advanced’ agrarian and industrial ways of life. We should bear in mind that both pastoralism and agrarianism are forms of agriculture, and that the domestication of both plants and animals are relatively recent phenomena (within the last 10 000 years), which, if we take homo sapiens sapiens to be approximately 200 000 years old as a species (admittedly contentious as that assumption is), have been dominant strategies for less than 5% of our history.

While pastoralism is often viewed as preceding agrarianism, archaeological evidence suggests that in many cases pastoralism may have followed agrarianism, and/or co-evolved with it. According to Blench (2001), “pastoralism develops from surplus, as individuals simply accumulate too many animals to graze them around a settlement throughout the year. In addition, as herders learnt more about the relations between particular types of ecology and the spread of debilitating diseases they gradually developed the practice of seasonally removing their animals from danger-zones”.(17)

Thus it is more useful to consider pastoralism and agrarianism as sibling strategies that evolved to deal with different sets of environmental circumstances than as points along the inevitable march of progress towards the age of technology. Whereas agrarianism flourished along the great river basins of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Indus, pastoralists became the heirs to the rangelands and deserts of the world, developing strategies to successfully exploit these environments.

Where agrarians developed sedentary societies which later stratified into city states and then expanded into nations and empires, pastoralists developed varying degrees of nomadism from true nomadism (permanently living in temporary structures and following no predetermined route of movement), through transhumance (seasonal migration along predetermined routes from summer to winter grazing grounds), to agropastoralism (where the home-base stays the same with grazing happening in a radius around it and supplementary forage being cultivated for the animals), depending on the environmental conditions they found themselves in. Their societies normally followed a tribal structure with extended family groups living and travelling together. Where agrarians developed concepts of land ownership with clearly demarcated boundaries from individual plots through to state borders, pastoralists developed more fluid concepts of rights of usage and passage relating to the resources within a territory and the right to move through it rather than direct and exclusive ownership over the land itself.

Like argumentative siblings, it appears that conflict between pastoralists and agrarians is of long standing. As Daniel Quinn argues persuasively in his book ‘Ishmael’ (well worth a read incidentally), perhaps the earliest written record of this conflict is the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain the agrarian murders Abel, his pastoralist brother. Quinn interprets this to be a fable that pastoralists told one another (bearing in mind that the tribe of Abraham were pastoralists) to account for the behavior of their agrarian neighbours,(18) whose significance was forgotten as they themselves became agrarians.(19) It is however, wildly inaccurate to suggest (as Quinn does) that agrarians have had it all their own way throughout history. Pastoralists have often enjoyed notable military success, from the Mongol hoardes under Ghengis Khan (horse pastoralists) through to the Zulus in Africa (cattle herders) and the Arabs in the Middle East (camel and goat herders). As for the mother culture of hunter-gathering, she has been driven into obscurity in the last wild refugia on the planet, leaving her combative sons to battle it out on the world stage.(20) It is worth noting that in many cases, where pastoralists have conquered lands suitable for settled agriculture, they have in many cases adopted it as a strategy, so we see that “while pastoralism has a certain ethnic component, it is above all a way of life appropriate to particular economic and ecological circumstances.”(21)

If the conflict is of ancient origin, it is also certainly of long duration as it persists to this day. However, with the expansion of human populations, the rise of technology and the era of the industrial nation state, it has intensified. Particularly, as new technologies have allowed agrarians to expand onto rangelands that had previously been the sole preserve of the pastoralists, the conflict has transformed from skirmishing along the transition zones of rangelands and cultivable zones to schemes at the national level to ‘relocate’ pastoralists so that their grazing grounds can be put to ‘better’ uses, and so that they themselves can become ‘useful members of society’. This has either forced pastoralists into increasingly inhospitable terrain, or resulted in the erosion of their culture as they have submitted to government schemes to ‘settle’ them. Thus, whether it is replaced with cultivated fields, with urban centres or with national parks, pastoralism is deemed an inappropriate use of land, and no discourse is more useful in shoring up this view than that of the ‘destructiveness’ of the nomad and the problem of overgrazing.

The concept of overgrazing as the driving force behind environmental changes in rangelands and as a major threat to biodiversity has been a dominant paradigm amongst conservation scientists for many decades. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that, in old world rangelands at least, even quite heavy grazing of landscapes on a seasonal basis may actually play a role in maintaining biodiversity. In 2006, an Israeli research group working in the Negev desert published a paper in which they claimed: “In light of our long term monitoring of rangeland productivity and herbaceous community structure we conclude that grazing, even heavy grazing, does not induce degradation. We claim that Old World grazing-determined systems are not prone to grazing impact but rather are mainly affected by climatic conditions. It seems that much of the overgrazing syndrome has stemmed from prejudice, political conflicts, and lack of ecological knowledge. We should not base conservation practice on such a shaky foundation.”(22)

Based on an experiment at the Bedouin Demonstration farm at Lehavim, north of Beer Sheva, this group found that “grazing exclosures tended to exhibit enhanced shrub cover at the expense of herbaceous vegetation, supporting the claim that grazing is not the cause of “shrub desertification” (the loss of rangeland by invasion of inedible shrubs) but is a means of controlling shrub encroachment….. In the more productive habitats (wadis) grazing is indispensable to the maintenance of high diversity, mainly because large species dominate the community when grazing is excluded.”(23)

In another recent publication, Gilbert (a British researcher working in the St Katherine’s Protected Area of the Sinai Peninsula), contends that despite overall population growth of around 220% amongst the Bedouin population from 1967 to the present, grazing pressure has actually been slashed by a factor of 10 due to sedentarisation and regulations put in place to limit grazing. She points out that even so, protectorate policy is still based on the assumption that the Bedouin are responsible for almost all instances of decline in vegetative cover via their grazing practices, and that this view is so deeply ingrained amongst conservation scientists working there that, even where their own data contradicts it, they manufacture reasons to explain away the inconsistencies. She concludes: “by sustaining national ideas of indigenous backwardness, this unchallenged conservation narrative has helped perpetuate Bedouin inequality – a lesson relevant to conservation scientists and practitioners working with indigenous pastoral peoples elsewhere in the world.”(24)

When we consider the dynamics of nomadic or transhumant grazing systems, it is obvious that in essence they resemble the ‘mob grazing’ models advocated by many permaculture practitioners: intensive grazing pressure for short periods of time followed by a recovery period for the vegetation to re-establish itself. The essential difference is that pastoralists do not put a fence around their lands, and their ranges may extend over much greater areas than even the largest ranches.

What are we to conclude from this? That environmental degradation as a result of over-grazing does not exist? We do not need to be that extreme – clearly many rangelands have become overstocked, as a result of many factors including pastoral communities’ encounter with industrialized society and globalized agriculture that both makes cheap supplementary fodder readily available and opens up their production to ‘market forces’ that encourage expansion of herds.(25) For example, Blench (2001) writes of the situation in Jordan:

The system of allocating subsidised feeds on a per-head basis has created a major incentive to increase herd sizes and in the Badia, the rangelands covering most of eastern Jordan, herds of 1000-2000 sheep are common. The forage resources cannot support herds of this size and the desert is increasingly a place to store animals while trucking in sacks of feed.

Nevertheless, we need at least to be cautious in casually accepting ‘conservation’ and ‘environmental protection’ as reasons to impose cultural sanctions against pastoralist people, and to be aware that many actors in positions of power (particularly at the state level) have other motivations for wishing pastoralists to be subdued, sedentarised, controlled and converted into urban proletariat. The mobility of these people and their transcendence of state boundaries is often perceived as a threat in itself, let alone cultural prejudice that labels them as ‘backwards’, ‘ignorant’ and in need of ‘improvement’ before they can be usefully incorporated into modern states.

We should also be aware that this ‘improvement’ paradigm does not just apply to the people, but to the landscape they inhabit (a problem that we as permaculturalists may also be particularly susceptible to). Rangelands and deserts are almost automatically characterized as ‘degraded’ and ‘undesirable’ landscapes, even where they exist as a natural consequence of climatic and edaphic conditions. ‘Greening the Desert’ is viewed as an heroic enterprise, and much effort and resource has often been spent on it – often with less than excellent results.

For example, in Israel the ‘greening’ of the northern Negev in the early days of the state is often held up as one of the greatest successes of the Zionist enterprise. However, in order to accomplish this feat, nearly all of the waters of the Jordan River were diverted, via the National Water Carrier, from the Sea of Galilee to the south of the country. As a result, the wetlands of the lower Jordan were totally destroyed, the river itself was reduced to a pathetic trickle comprised only of sewage and saline spring water,(26) the Palestinians of the West Bank were completely disenfranchised from any use of the waters of the river that runs along their entire eastern border, and the level of the Dead Sea started to drop at a rate of about 1 metre per year, causing its surface area to contract and opening up huge sink-holes in the ground all along its coast.

We may well dismiss this as the results of technocracy, a disease to which we may (thankfully) be immune. However, we may be more vulnerable to corruption when it comes to the issue of displacing Bedouin tribes via Jewish National Fund forestry schemes, converting grazing grounds into plantations (in particular if these plantations use native trees and smart rainwater harvesting techniques that we would not despise to implement on our own properties). To give a relevant example, Al Araqib (the village that was demolished for the 49th time this February), is supposed to be replaced with a JNF plantation funded by American evangelist Christians known as ‘God TV Forest’.(27) Whatever species this plantation is comprised of, and however well thought out the planting and rainwater harvesting strategy, we should not allow ourselves to be blinded to the demolished houses and displaced families that this forest replaces, nor should we forget that the State initially uprooted more than 1000 olive trees in its efforts to remove the Bedouin from their land.

Even where we see through this kind of green-wash, we may still fall prey to the idea that agrarian systems and tree planting schemes are ultimately more desirable than nomadic or transhumant pastoralist lifestyles. We all admire the Nabateans as the great farmers of the desert. During the PermaNegev course, without fail, I bring my students to see the ruins of Shivte and the beautiful reconstructed Nabatean system at Ezuz farm, and without fail they are impressed (as they should be) by the innovative genius of the architects, who succeeded in farming in one of the most arid landscapes on earth with little more rain than falls today. We cannot help relating to these people, and Israeli researchers and pioneer farmers in particular tend to think of themselves as the heirs of the Nabateans, who they feel were superior to the Bedouins. For example, Evenari et al. write in ‘The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert’ (2001), a book about their efforts to research and rebuild Nabatean farming systems: “Our experience has shown that the Bedouin is neither an ingenious inventor nor a gifted farmer”.

Rainwater harvesting earthworks lesson under an ancient carob tree in Shivte.

Reconstructed Nabatean orchard at Shivte using channels to magnify water
availability and terraces and drop boxes to control the flood and
soak it into the ground.

This notion of cultural or racial superiority equaling greater entitlement to land and resources is dangerous stuff – it has underpinned many of the greatest atrocities in history, and continues to underpin much of the interaction of the industrialized world with indigenous non-industrialised peoples to this day (particularly when those peoples are sitting on top of oil or mineral reserves we happen to want, or land we think could be ‘used better’). Alarm bells should immediately start ringing when we recognize this thought pattern and justification system.

Even setting aside personal distaste for racism, colonialism, theft, bigotry and cultural genocide, and speaking from a purely environmental perspective, a little reflection should be enough to reveal how flawed this thinking is. The Nabateans were master farmers of one particular type of desert environment: the wadi (valley). Their system relied on the extensive use of channels to magnify the amount of water in a particular piece of land (the valley floor) by many times, bringing in the rain that fell over a rangeland environment much greater in size than the ‘farm’ in order to keep their crops watered. Ingenious? Of course! Applicable to the entire desert/ rangeland? Emphatically not.

Approaching the orchard at Ezuz from the general rangeland environment.

Ezuz in the spring-time – abundance in the desert from harvested rainwater.

In reality, the Nabateans were originally nomadic people who came from the Arabian peninsula and started to build trading stations that later developed into cities. They were originally Bedouins! ‘Nabte’ in Arabic means ‘plant’, ‘nabati’ means ‘vegetarian’ – thus the name ‘Nabatean’ means ‘plant-eaters’ (a shift from the more meat and dairy oriented diets of true pastoralists). Nabateans exploited a particular niche within the rangeland environment, taking advantage of topography to create greater water abundance than generally existed. Thus they were able to create permanent settlements and raise plant crops. They were also traders and relied on camel caravans to move their goods, retaining a degree of mobility and connection to their nomadic origins. This combination made them, for a time, a powerful empire, and the great city of Petra owes its existence to the wealth that was created.(28)

However, when trade routes shifted north towards the Syrian city of Palmyra and onto the sea-routes around the Arabian peninsula, their power and wealth crumbled and Petra was abandoned in the 4th century BCE (there is some suggestion that war with the Persians and/ or an enormous earthquake may have also been partially responsible for the abandonment of the Nabatean capital). It is interesting that the quitting of the capital seems to have been a relatively orderly affair, leaving behind little in the way of silver, gold or jewels for archaeologists to discover: “Sometime probably during the fourth century CE, the Nabateans left their capital at Petra. No one really knows why. It seems that the withdrawal was an unhurried and organized process, as very few silver coins or valuable possessions have been unearthed at Petra.”(29) Perhaps the Nabateans simply returned to their previous nomadic pastoralist existence?

If that were true it would not be the first or the last such transition. As Roger Blench points out:

Pastoralists are by their nature flexible and opportunistic and can rapidly switch management systems as well as operating multiple systems in one overall productive enterprise. For example, West African cattle-herders can practise a system of regular transhumance for a long period, building up patronage relationships with farmers on their routes. However, in a case of extreme drought or disease stress, they will switch to highly ‘nomadic’ patterns, moving to new areas and breaking these relationships. When the crisis has passed they may revert to their former routes or move into an entirely new management mode.(30)

The Nabateans were not the only Bedouin tribe to farm plants. The Bedouin of the Negev would raise winter crops of wheat and barley in the north-western Negev before they were expelled from the area in the 1950s. The Bedouin of the South Sinai take advantage of the clayey soil pockets and higher rainfall of the mountains around St Katherine’s to practice a unique ‘garden’ agriculture, raising tree crops and vegetables in areas with suitable topography. Where it makes sense to raise crops, pastoralists tend to raise them, abandoning them if conditions become impractical. Conversely, where new grazing lands open up, they have the mobility to exploit them. The fall of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the ‘command economies’ of Central Asia opened up one of the largest rangelands in the world in the closing decade of the 20th century, causing a huge resurgence in nomadic pastoralism as a lifestyle as refugees from collapsed industrial enterprises that only functioned with significant subsidy sought to revive “the only method of subsistence that is practical throughout much of the region”.(31)

Thus a huge advantage that many pastoralists maintain is cultural flexibility: the ability to adapt their environmental management system to prevailing conditions. Whilst the idea that pastoralists have no environmental consciousness and are essentially a mindless roving destructive force (or a sedentarised one), is popular amongst policy makers seeking to justify their programs of control, it is, in fact, erroneous. Like all people living in close connection with their environment, pastoralists have a vested interest in maintaining the productivity of the ecosystem that sustains them. For example, in South Sinai for many years (before the institutionalization of Egyptian State Control via St Katherine’s Protected Area), the helf system, determined by the Bedu sheikhs, instituted a system of stiff penalties to ensure that accessible areas important for summer grazing were not grazed during winter, while if patchy rainfall left some tribal territories depleted, reciprocal grazing agreements permitted people to pasture their flocks outside their own lands.(32) Many examples exist, in pastoralist tribal law around the world, of active environmental management in practice. For the main part, it is where these structures are eroded by disenfranchisement and concentration of pastoralists, sedentarisation programs, industrialization and globalization of agriculture and general cultural erosion that environmental problems ensue.

In the face of the global environmental challenges of the coming century, cultural diversity, as well as biodiversity, may be one of the greatest assets we possess as we struggle to adapt to changing conditions. Whilst the demise of pastoralist culture has been popularly predicted for some time, it is worth noting that “politically popular but unsustainable development of rangelands, often dependent on the mining of fossil water, is not a long-term development strategy and in some decades pastoralists may reclaim such land.” For example “the ancient North African development of much of the northern Sahara through large irrigation channels is today only an archaeological curiosity in a pastoral zone.”(33)

Whilst industrial states struggle to obliterate and assimilate (or ‘improve’) the cultures that are able to successfully and sustainably raise meat and milk on rangeland ecosystems, it is to be hoped that the knowledge necessary to re-adjust to environmental reality when the pressure is off will somehow be preserved. And for those of us working with pastoralist communities caught in the web of environmental delusion, cultural imperialism and technocratic megalomania? Even as we work to adapt to current realities of severely curtailed grazing rights, outlawed cultivation, imported forage, sudden access to groundwater piped in from hundreds of kilometers away or mined from fossil resources, and try to make the best systems possible within this framework; even as we introduce aquaponics, wicking beds, solar panels and conservation tillage; we need to simultaneously foster cultural memory and respect for indigenous knowledge, as well as struggling for a change in policy.

Whilst I am aware that much of this may come off as naïve orientalism and romanticisation of the pastoralist lifestyle, I believe it cannot be denied that many pastoralist communities around the world are under attack by their national governments, that these attacks often take the form of coercive attempts at sedentarisation and cultural assimilation, that the justification for these schemes is often one of ‘environmental protection’, and that the schemes often cause more environmental and humanitarian problems than they solve. In addition, many are resented and resisted by the communities they affect.

Surely the possibility exists for a more productive and dynamic interaction? Currently the rhetoric runs that if pastoralists want to ‘enter the 21st century’ and enjoy the fruits of technological advancement they need to admit that their culture is obsolete, abandon it and get a job in a factory or on a construction site, they need to live in a house like a proper person, they need to learn the knowledge deemed appropriate and necessary by the State and forget anything that is not on the list (like practical skills for surviving in the land they inhabit), they need to settle down. I would suggest that this is a false dichotomy. There is no particular reason why modern technology could not be used to enhance pastoralist lifestyles other than lack of political will.

A general suggestion for a change in policy towards pastoralists is presented by Roger Blench, and neatly echoes a key principle of permaculture design:

… national governments often see pastoralists as a ‘problem’ and it is hard not to be coloured by this discourse…. If it is national policy to sedentarise pastoralists, then the failure of projects or initiatives to settle them transmutes into a problem. If is accepted that pastoralism is simply a part of the national tapestry of lifeways, then the ‘problem’ evanesces.(34)

The problem is the solution.

P.S. Here’s a link to a petition to stop the Prawer Begin Plan:

I know it probably wont make a blind bit of difference and another massive rash of home and crop demolitions is about to break out, but still…. is good for you all to know what they are up to!


Education and immersion opportunity! Want to experience living in a Bedouin village first hand? Interested in learning about the Middle East and speaking the Arabic language? Want to live, eat and breathe permaculture for 6 weeks whilst getting your PDC in this unique setting? Then join us in Qasr A Sir for our 4th international PDC course from July 7th to August 15th. $1500 early bird discounted price, contact permanegev (at) bustan.org for more details.


Further Reading:


  1. For more background on this issue please see my earlier article on this website “The Search for Sustainability in the Negev
  2. See the website of the Negev Coexistence Forum for information on ongoing developments and demolitions: http://www.dukium.org/eng/
  3. ”Relocation Plan Threatens Israel’s Bedouin Community”, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, Al Monitor, January 2013: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/01/israel-bedouin-relocation-negev-benny-begin.html
  4. “Principles for Arranging Recognition of Bedouin Villages” (2011) Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Planners for Planning Rights and the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages: http://www.acri.org.il/en/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Prawer-Policy-Paper-May2011.pdf
  5. “Bulldozers flatten Bedouin Village 49 times” Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, Al Jazeera, April 18th 2013.http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/04/2013415141817288270.html
  6. As early as 1937 David Ben Gurion who became the first Prime Minister of Israel wrote in a letter to his son: "Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens, whenever and wherever they want. We must expel the Arabs and take their place – and if we have to use force, then we have force at our disposal”.
  7. Hillary Gilbert (2013) ‘Bedouin Overgrazing’ and Conservation Politics: Challenging ideas of pastoralist destruction in South Sinai. Biological Conservation 160, pp 59-69
  8. E Fratkin (1997) Pastoralism: governance and development issues. Annual Review of Anthropology 26, pp 235-261
  9. Mark Twain (1869) Innocents Abroad, Chapter 56. H H Bancroft and Co. 1869
  10. E H Palmer (1871) The desert of the Exodus: Journeys on foot in the winderness of the 40 years’ wanderings; undertaken in connection with the Ordnance Survey of Sinai and the Palestine Exploration Fund. Cambridge University Press 1871.
  11. Alon Tal (2007) To Make a Desert Bloom: The Israeli Agricultural Adventure and the Quest for Sustainability. Proceedings of the Agricultural History Society 2007.
  12. “Blueprint Negev: An expose of the JNF’s role in the displacement of the Negev Bedouin” Rebecca Manski, Bedouin-Jewish Justice Forum, November 9th 2010.http://bedouinjewishjustice.blogspot.com/2010/11/blueprint-negev-by-rebecca-manski.html
  13. John G Gallaty (1998) Losing Ground: Indigenous Rights and Recourse Across Africa. Cultural Survival Quarterly 22:4.http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/losing-ground-indigenous-rights-and-recourse-across-africa
  14. Roger Blench (2001) “Pastoralism in the New Millenium”. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2001.
  15. International Panel on Climate Change (2007) Summary for Policy Makers.http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf
  16. “Salinity in the landscape: A growing problem in Australia” Pichu Rangesamy, Geotimes, March 2008. http://www.geotimes.org/mar08/article.html?id=feature_salinity.html
  17. Roger Blench (2001)
  18. Whose hunger to place more land under cultivation as their population grew presumably led them to expand into the territories of pastoralist neighbours
  19. Daniel Quinn (1992) “Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit”. Bantam Books, 1995.
  20. See Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1997) for a thorough account of the agrarian expansions and an interesting analysis of the evolution of the current ‘world order’.
  21. Roger Blench (2001)
  22. Linda Olsvig-Whittaker, Eliezer Frankenberg, Avi Perevolotsky, Eugene D. Ungar (2006) Grazing, Overgrazing and Conservation: Changing concepts and practices in the Negev Highlands. Secheresse 17, 1-2, pp 195-199
  23. Ibid.
  24. Hillary Gilbert (2013) ‘Bedouin Overgrazing’ and conservation politics: Challenging ideas of pastoral destruction in South Sinai. Biological Conservation 160, pp 59-69
  25. Blench (2001)
  26. The flow at the Allenby Bridge dropped from 1350 million cubic metres of water per year in the 1950s to less than 100 MCM today
  27. “Jewish National Fund resumes forestation project in Al Araqib” Mairav Zonszein, +972 Magazine, May 7th 2012
  28. Nabataea.net “Nabataeans in the Negev” http://nabataea.net/negev.html
  29. Jordanian History: The Mysterious Nabateans.http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/his_nabateans.html
  30. Blench (2001)
  31. Ibid.
  32. Gilbert (2013)
  33. Blench (2001)
  34. Blench (2001)


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