By Published: July 11, 2022

Kenya and Tanzania are home to diverse groups of nomadic herders, or pastoralists — peoples like the Maasai, Turkana and Samburu who depend on cattle for their survival and cross wide expanses of grasslands to keep their cows fed. 

They also engage in occasional cattle raiding. Men arm themselves with AK-47s, which you can buy for around $8 in parts of East Africa, and sneak into their rivals’ territory in the dead of night to steal cows. Sometimes, the consequences are deadly.

CU Boulder researchers John O’Loughlin and Terrence McCabe had long wondered: In arid regions of the world like these wide pasturelands, could climate change make violence worse?

"The future of peoples like the Maasai or Turkana may depend on tackling all of these challenges and more together."

“When people live on the margins already, it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge to take desperate measures,” said O’Loughlin, professor of geography.

To get to the bottom of that question, O’Loughlin and McCabe, professor of anthropology, teamed up over the last decade to conduct several surveys of communities across Kenya. They discovered that people who fled their homes to escape drought, including some pastoralists, were over three times more likely to be victims of violence than Kenyans who remained in place.

But the situation is complicated: In many pastoralist communities, traditional elders often meet with leaders from nearby communities, even sworn enemies, to hash out their differences. Those kinds of leaders seem to significantly reduce the risk of disagreements devolving into bloodshed, even in the midst of severe droughts.

O’Loughlin and McCabe worry, however, that East Africa’s pastoralist peoples may be losing their ability to adapt to a changing environment. The team surveyed more than 500 people from Isiolo County near the center of Kenya four times from early 2020 to early 2022. Their preliminary results suggest that life in this region is getting worse as people contend with the COVID-19 pandemic, a historic locust invasion and repeated droughts.

"The future of peoples like the Maasai or Turkana may depend on tackling all of these challenges and more together," McCabe said. 

“What I’m worried about is that people who have been resilient to these kinds of environmental changes for centuries will lose their resilience,” he said.

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