Issue 53 - Article 5

How reciprocal grazing agreements can increase the resilience of pastoralists

March 19, 2012
Andreas Jenet and Eunice Obala, VSF Germany
A community meeting between Dasanach communities in Kenya and Ethiopia to address cross-border security and resource sharing

Droughts in arid areas are caused by failed rains and exacerbated by the strategies affected people use to counter the depletion of resources and weakened coping mechanisms. A VSF consortium programme is focusing on the approaches and practices communities use to support dialogue and negotiation as a prerequisite for creating disaster-resilient communities. Such practices include reciprocal resource agreements, which are a common feature in pastoralist customary traditions.

Reciprocal resource agreements govern the use of shared resources: resources that are under the custody of one community, but are also open to a neighbouring community in times of drought. These agreements are intrinsically connected to pastoral mobility, and thus form an essential legal basis for mobile livelihood systems. They are also an essential part of pastoralist coping strategies. By strengthening these agreements it is possible to enhance climate change adaptation among pastoral communities.


Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VSF) uses a participatory process to facilitate reflection among communities, based on customary knowledge and community water and rangeland management plans. A VSF team supports groups that represent the broad community. Maps are drawn using participatory rural appraisal (PRA) techniques, so that all relevant information is included. This is followed by a mapping validation process. Reciprocal grazing agreements are one of the key milestones in this process.

VSF’s approach is designed to encourage communities to make a holistic analysis of their problems and needs (e.g. for water and pasture) in order to develop conflictsensitive solutions. The aim is to establish mutual agreement and  understanding, and resource-sharing action plans with a clearly described operational framework (rules and regulations). It  is worth noting that such an agreement needs to be elaborated predominantly for times of drought, as during normal times no resource sharing may be necessary.

Process steps

Step 1: Mobilisation and sensitisation of communities using a participatory approach (Community-Managed Disaster Risk Reduction (CMDRR)).

Step 2: Establishment of core working groups consisting of people with a clear understanding of the community and existing resources and detailed historical knowledge.

Step 3: Drawing of resource use maps showing boundaries, neighbouring communities, existing resources, dry, wet and reserve grazing areas, migration routes to markets, water points and conflict-prone zones and institutions.

Step 4: Community validation of resource use maps.

Step 5: Inter-community meetings. Special focus is given to the identification of grazing areas with unused or under-used pasture and water resources, as well as the zoning of existing resources for potential sharing.

Step 6: Strategic planning of inter-community resource use. The elements are put into a systematic framework that can be monitored, and which forms the terms and conditions under which resources are used. The plans consist of a Reciprocal  Agreement Framework Matrix setting out what has been agreed, who is responsible for the agreement, how it is going to be implemented and the penalties for transgression.

Step 7: Ratification and validation of the proposed plan.

Step 8: Final signing of the Reciprocal Agreement. Once the Reciprocal Agreement is approved or endorsed by community members, it is then signed by the representatives of the two communities concerned, in an event witnessed by local leaders. The inclusion of government representatives is particularly important in cross-border plans. There must also be documented proof of an agreement to allow cross-border movements of livestock and people in times of disaster.

Step 9: Implementation by the communities, with outreach at community meetings and forums, chiefs’ barazas and markets to increase publicity and awareness of the agreement’s terms and conditions.

Step 10: Monitoring of the Reciprocal Agreements. Community committees are responsible for monitoring the implementation process through scheduled meetings, taking note of violations and sharing these with leaders and government representatives. This is a difficult task for the local authorities since customary agreements were traditionally carried forward only orally, and written agreements need to be regularly revisited.


Gabra and Hamar communities who have lived in conflict for years have developed a reciprocal grazing agreement that has been instrumental in enhancing pasture and water resource sharing around Sabare, Minongerti and Hado areas along the Ethiopia–Kenya border. The arrangement increased resilience and reduced the impact of the drought in 2010 and 2011. A very successful community-managed monitoring system has ensured regular dialogue meetings, the return of stray cattle, meetings to improve social cohesion and improved security among the communities involved. As Chief Tuye Katelo of the Dukana community in Dukana put it: ‘We are very grateful for the peace meetings to bring us together with the Hamar community with whom we fought for years … The peace and reciprocal agreements we made and respect has created peace, and now we have crossborder joint grazing’. Reciprocal grazing agreements between the Dasanach and Gabra are  also in place, starting with the sharing of grazing areas in Sabare, Darate and Bulluk, which for decades were used only rarely due to conflict. Gabra traders visiting Dasanach sleep over in the village, and Dasanach trucks have been allowed to travel to Ileret to transport food relief and for commercial de-stocking to Nairobi. Likewise, reciprocal agreements between Dasanach and Hamar communities developed steadily in 2011, leading to peaceful sharing of pasture and water around Surge, El-Nyakuwanga and Langai along the Kenya–Ethiopia border. These areas were not fully utilised in the past due to conflict.

The Gabra and Borana developed a reciprocal agreement to enhance resource sharing in 2009–2010. The Gabra had pasture around Hurri Hills, which is their dry season reserve, but had no water, whilst the Borana of Dillo woreda had water but no pasture. The two communities agreed to share resources with each other, leading to increased coping capacity and resilience during the drought. The reciprocal grazing agreement between the Dodoth community of Uganda and the Turkana community of Kenya included Naporoto, Loile, Pire, Matakul and Kalopeto, which, after the agreement was signed, became accessible to the communities bordering these areas. Other steps taken by the village planning committees of the two  communities included land use planning, early warning sensitisation and drought preparedness planning. Finally, a meeting between the Kenyan government and an Ethiopian government delegation was facilitated in February 2010 to address the closure of the Kenya (Marsabit North) and Ethiopia (South Omo Zone) border. The Kenyan District Commission for Marsabit North closed the border in September 2009 after a Gabra community was raided by a Dasanach community, resulting in five deaths and the loss of thousands of livestock at Darate. The restrictions on movement imposed by the closure had a devastating effect. The meeting concluded with the two governments agreeing to reinforce the reciprocal grazing agreements developed by both communities and to reopen the border. In addition, the two governments agreed to regular future meetings in order to share information and to improve the coordination of their actions across the border. Cross-border security has improved since a ‘border security team’ was deployed, made up of police from the station in Illeret and Eubua and division officers in Omorate, Turmi and North Horr.


Recognising that mobility is intrinsically linked with access to resources in neighbouring communities, and that these access rights were traditionally negotiated and codified in customary settlements, resource agreements play an essential role in pastoral resilience to drought. The key to making reciprocal resource agreements successful is to integrate them within different approaches, such as conflict-sensitive programming, water resource management and participative rangeland management (planned grazing). Reciprocal resource agreements are a powerful tool in increasing resilience, particularly in cross-border areas. It is crucial to recognise that it is not the agreement document that is important, but rather the opportunity to link customary traditions with national authorities, and the establishment of permanent dialogue and understanding between different communities. It is the process itself that makes the methodology a success.

Andreas Jenet is Head of Programmes and Eunice Obala is a Programme Officer at VSF Germany.


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