Economic irrationality among pastoral peoples in East Africa: myth or reality?
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This paper represents an examination by an economist of the so-called "theory of pastoral conservatism" in order to establish some limits as to its validity and some ways in which this validity might be properly tested. To most officials, overstocking arises out of the irrational 'cattle complex' of the pastoralists, but this view is challenged by two alternative explanations which are presented here: the economic 'common property' explanation that overstocking is likely to arise from the divergence between private and social interests so long as cattle are individually owned and the land is owned communally, and the sociological explanation which refers to a number of social functions of cattle beyond theprovision of sustenance. As an alternative to these two explanations, it is suggested that an excess cattle population may simply be associated with an excess human population. At any rate, when assessing the proper stocking level in any area both the stock-to-land ratio and the stock-to-human ratio must be taken into consideration. A "lack of commercial-mindedness" among pastoralists is also frequently hypothesised, but this notion must be tested with more systematic information on marketing facilities , on the actual level of sales and on the stock-to-human ratio. Evidence is presented that among the Pokot of northern Kenya resistance to selling cattle in order to reduce the size of herds is very strong. A case study from Tanzania also indicates that when a substantial investment programme was carried out in a pastoral area, the number of livestock rose enormousl. Some of this increase in numbers was ecologically supportable, but a great deal was not. Finally the usefulness of the term 'cattle complex' is questioned. The focus should be rather on more testable propositions such as the holding of excess stock, the level of sales, the willingness to limit large individual holdings of cattle, the purchase (given an adequate level of realisable income) of cash goods, and the like, which may throw light on behaviour and its rationality according to some stated criteria.