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Why Mobile Technology Matters for the World’s Nomadic Peoples

An ancient way of life discovers newfound viability by drawing on surprisingly modern innovations.

Camels marked with painted brands, though no phone numbers. Image by Mark Hay

A few weeks back, in a passing conversation I heard a story about a strange innovation cooked up by some nomads in a far away country. Looking for a better way to identify their herds and locate them when they wander off, these folks had apparently decided to paint their phone numbers onto the side of their livestock in lieu of abstract brands. To date, I’ve been unable to substantiate this tale (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, as I’ve seen such painted-on characters used as quasi-brands at camel markets in East Africa in the recent past). But even if it is apocryphal, the story is far from absurd. It speaks to a real and verifiable revolution in the world’s nomadic traditions, fueled by the proliferation of cheap communications technology. These simple devices are rapidly conquering the challenges of modernity that have long chipped away at the viability of itinerant herding, laying the grounds for nomadism not just to survive into the new millennium, but to thrive—as few would have imagined—to the benefit of us all.

For most people, the notion of nomadism’s decline probably sounds a bit odd, because many assume that this tradition, now absent in much of the world, died out long ago. Many now use the term “nomadism” to describe 20-somethings who move around a lot or start-ups with no set workspace rather than mobile pastoralists ranging their animals over wide tracts of land. Yet while nomadism is far from its pre-modern heyday, there are still tens of millions of people around the world living traditional nomadic lives. It’s hard to pin down an exact number, as not every nation counts nomads as a discrete population. Nor does everyone agree on what counts as nomadism (as degrees of movement and quasi-sedentary fixation vary from group to group). But in the 21st century, some sources believe that up to 50 million people in Africa alone practice nomadism—and there are substantial nomadic populations in Asia and South America as well.

Yet these numbers are far smaller than they would have been even a century ago. Over the past few decades, the slow decline of nomadism in the modern era has accelerated rapidly as wars along arbitrary national borders have bisected regions and denied nomads access to land, climate change and urban industry have degraded the environment, and economic revolutions in farming and consumer markets have radically altered nomads’ ability to earn a living. These shifting sands have forced many nomads to fall into the pull of urbanization, a trend perhaps most visible in Mongolia, one of the world’s most nomadic nations with a 29 percent pastoral-itinerant population. Fifteen years ago, the capital of Ulaanbaatar (today home to 43 percent of the nation’s population of 2.8 million) was only 61 percent of its current size. But it has swelled thanks to the rise of heavy mining in the countryside, the tanking of nomadic incomes relative to those of urbanites, and a lack of viability in this growing economic and environmental fragility.

Mongolian nomad in front of his ger, note solar panel leaning near the entrance. Image by Karina Moreton via Flickr

Despite these clear trends, there’s been little concerted effort to help nomads overcome the challenges of a changing world and maintain their traditions. A few small projects have tried to help pastoralists find good grazing grounds and monitor their animals’ health, but these have been limited in scope. This lack of attention probably has something to do with the absence of explicit protection for nomadism in international law and human rights norms, which have only recently been made, through extreme contortions, to offer some solace to herders. It also probably has something to do with how foreign nomadism feels to most of us, and how irrelevant it seems to states, which exist (and here I betray some of my inborn rural Western wariness) in part to monitor citizens and leverage their wealth and works—a goal nomadism does not abet.

Rather than protect people’s rights to perpetuate a nomadic lifestyle, some governments seem hell-bent on destroying these traditions and forcing herders into sedentism. Some of this is incidental, thanks to state policies that make wandering harder by concentrating resources like water into set loci. But some of it’s explicit, as when governments appropriate traditional grazing lands for development, sometimes even forcing nomads to resettle in fixed, foreign locales.

Yet where states and other actors have failed to offer solace, many nomads have started to find help in the rapid proliferation of cell phones. Although in the early 2000s, these devices were fairly rare in more remote regions, over the past decade or so communications technology has penetrated even the most rural and mobile of populations to an amazing degree, as have the cheap means to keep phones charged without a fixed power station—think cheap solar panels. In Mongolia, where it can be particularly hard to reach the most remote parts of the massive and sometimes treacherous territory, nomadic cell phone usage reached about 90 percent a few years back, according to one estimate, with solar panel penetration hitting similar levels of ubiquity. Although the numbers aren’t as firm everywhere, the trend seems to be similar worldwide.

This phone penetration has brought great benefits to rural populations, sedentary or nomadic, throughout the developing world—key amongst them being a revolution in the ease and security of moving around cash. In 2007, Kenya’s M-Pesa system kicked off a mobile money revolution (that the West is still catching up to), allowing those without access to banks to store and transfer cash over long distances, opening up the possibility of secure micro-loans to those in need and widening the scope of commerce. $1.7 trillion passed through Kenyan mobile phones in 2013 alone, leading to demonstrable increases in rural incomes, even amongst the most marginal, like nomads. And numerous other systems for distributing and storing cash via simple phones have developed both in Kenya and beyond, helping nomads get loans to float their flocks through hard times and disease, conduct simpler transactions, and generally face substantially less financial risk in their day-to-day lives.

Tuareg nomads in Algeria. Image by Garrondo via Wikimedia Commons

Yet while mobile money’s been a godsend to rural people of all sorts, nomads have reaped unique benefits from the cellular revolution as well. Over the past few years, many have started using phones to share information through informal networks on commodities prices, weather patterns, and grazing conditions in and across nations, helping herders to maximize their production and profits while minimizing their risk in a rapidly changing ecosystem and economic market. During a major drought in 2010, the Kenyan government itself took to using these networks to help nomadic Maasai tribes avoid disaster. And as of this year, some researchers are trying to develop simplistic apps that will collect crowd-sourced data of this sort and present it in pictorial form for the benefit of the illiterate, leveraging these informal networks into truly robust and universally accessible maps of viability, evening playing fields for nomads.

Beyond boosts to the economic lives of herders, phones have also brought unexpected benefits in terms of mobile legal and health services, connecting those in the boondocks and on the move to experts who can help to improve their quality of life. For example, an innovative Kenyan project, M-Sheria, has now given mobile phone holders access to hundreds of pro bono lawyers who can help nomads defend their land rights, using tools of a legal system that were once utterly inaccessible to most of them. Although these programs are in their early stages, they could have a huge effect on the slow degradation of pastoral lands, putting up strong new roadblocks to wanton development, not to mention the basic quality and security of life for those living far from most modern services.

Even the solar panels brought in to charge phones have granted nomads other beneficial developments, especially visible in Mongolia where there’s been a concerted effort by the government to get cheap and reliable solar power into the countryside (where stringing up power lines is unrealistic). Eliminating the need for candles to create light, for instance, has reduced the risk of smoke-exposure-based diseases, extended the workday, and freed up shockingly huge sums in family budgets to buy consumer goods.

Mongolian family in front of their ger. Image by The Wandering Angel via Flickr

Able to enjoy the benefits of modernity on the move and to generate a little more economic security even in the face of a rapidly changing world, cell phones and charging stations have started to make nomadism a viable lifestyle again. There’s some evidence in Mongolia that these shifts have even allowed some nomads, recently settled in Ulaanbaatar, to abandon the overcrowded city and the scramble for limited, bottom-rung service jobs, returning to the pastures instead. And as the benefits of this cellular revolution grow, it’s possible that we’ll see more and more people going back to the fields, slowly reversing centuries of urbanizing trends.

This reversal may well be a benefit for all of us, not just nomads. Not only will it reduce pressures of urbanization on already overstressed developing megacities, but it may well provide an increasingly visible alternative template for animal husbandry in the modern era. Nomadic herding, it turns out, is shockingly productive when properly leveraged, and far less devastating to local ecosystems than modern mass herding by most accounts. It’s also far more resilient in the face of climate change, and seems to produce superior meat and dairy as well. (After all, it is basically the ultimate free-range agriculture.) Granted the size and appetite of the modern human population likely cannot be sustained by nomadic meat and dairy alone. But given the environmental fragility we’re likely to face in the coming decades and centuries, every little boost in food security helps.

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