Cows and the Climate: the View from There

Cows and the Climate: the View from There

Beautiful...and dry

At the end of March, I got an on-the-ground view of the impacts of climate change. The scene wasn’t pretty. I found myself in a pick-up truck driving into the Rift Valley about an hour outside Nairobi. In the best of times, the valley is dry and has an austere, almost out-of-this-world brownish beauty. When the seasonal rains fall, the grass turns green and animals’cows, goats and the occasional zebra or gazelle’come to graze. In the part of the valley where I was, however, the rains hadn’t come and it was bone dry. As the truck wound into the valley, we stopped frequently as women climbed aboard. Public transportation here is erratic to non-existent. The women, dressed in traditional Maasai red-patterned sheets and beautifully, primary-color-beaded jewelry, needed to get to a meeting with, as it happened, me.

As we drove, Joseph ole Simel, founder of a Kenyan NGO, the Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization (MPIDO) filled me in on the local effects of global warming. The communities here, nearly all Maasai herders of cows, sheep and goats, are going from one crisis to another, he said. The rains fail more often now. The elders can recall drought, but when it came then, it was only once in ten years. That gave people time to recover. Now, that time is gone. As a result, livestock populations are decreasing all over Maasailand, the traditional lands of the Maasai people. Without the livestock, families don’t have money, so they can’t pay school fees for their children. Girls are the first to suffer. They’re often forced to drop out of school and married off so their fathers can get some cows and goats as dowry in return. Raised rates of early marriage follow droughts.

It’s a crazy cycle, as Joseph explained. Just as pastoralism becomes less viable as the climate changes, education and the options it provides are gaining value. But because the rains don’t come regularly, cows and goats die, families get poorer (many need food aid) and the children can’t go to school. What kind of a future will they have? It’s not a great leap from what I’d seen to arguing that raising livestock, and especially cows, just won’t work in a warming world. (Goats, Joseph explained, are more resistant to drought than cows). It’s not clear it’s working now. Methane, particularly from cows, is a significant contributor to climate change.

As I looked around me at the parched landscape, I listened to the women at our meeting. Among the questions they asked me were these: “How can we cope with drought? What will we do? Do you have droughts in your place?” I tried to explain that the effects of climate change, like erratic rainfall, wouldn’t affect us in the industrialized world as much because we could adapt more easily. But for you here, I said uncertainly, it’s tough. (I couldn’t offer much consolation or any real soothing words: how on earth will they cope?) The rich world needs to know about that’and help, I concluded. We’re the ones who got us all into this mess in the first place with our fossil-fuel burning and outsize appetites.

Things are happening on the ground, but slowly. As Joseph said, the people have almost no information about climate change and the government doesn’t have the capacity to do much of anything. Climate Network Africa, based in Kenya, is working to improve the chances for environmentally sustainable and socially equitable development in Africa in light of the serious danger of climate change, ozone depletion and desertification. At the global level, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just spoke for the third time in a few months, this time in a major report addressing mitigation. That means what do we do to reduce what we’re currently doing that’s heating up the planet. Livestock gets only a small mention. We need, the authors say, to ensure better management of grazing lands and livestock, and restore degraded lands. Fine, but it sounds so small bore. Those Maasai women in Kenya’s Rift Valley and millions of other people are in the cauldron of a changing climate; for them, it can mean life or death.

The last day I was in Kenya, in early April, there was a short but soaking rain. March and April are the traditional season of the long rains. I saw Joseph ole Simel in New York last week. He told me there’d been three days of rain in the Rift Valley in all of April. Fear of drought and catastrophe, along with temperatures, are rising.