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Held in Rajasthan, 2024 UN Year of Camelids focuses on biodiversity of pastoralism

By Rosamma Thomas* 
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2024 the International Year of Camelids (camelids include seven species: Bactrian camels, dromedary camels and wild camels as well as South American camelids, namely domesticated llamas and alpacas and wild vicuñas and guanacos), with the aim of celebrating the crucial role of camelids in the lives and livelihoods of herders across the world. The first international event to commemorate the International Year of Camelids was held from January 5-10 at Sadri, Pali district of Rajasthan, where NGO Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, League for Pastoral Peoples and the Godwar camel milk producers hosted nomadic pastoralists, academics and researchers.
It is now recognized that nomadic pastoralism improves soil and contributes to biodiversity, while aiding in the production of milk, meat and fibre with minimal inputs, offering indigenous communities resources they have managed for generations. In recent years, however, with expanding urban spaces, fencing off of lands and shrinking pastures, these communities have faced great stress.
Speakers at the five-day event in Rajasthan, including researcher and author of Camel Karma Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, warned against seeing the pastoralism of indigenous communities as just another means of production – historically, camelids are associated with mobile communities that capitalize on their capacity to convert sparse vegetation into valuable food, fibre, fuel and physical energy.  
Camelids are vital to the protection of biodiversity of arid and semi-arid regions of the world; they also contribute to the food security of those areas. What was crucial to underline, though, was that the system works to promote food security and biodiversity only when it remains nomadic and mobile. “Mobility is an asset and an explicit method of resilience, especially in times of global climate change and weather unpredictability,” the note distributed after the event stated, explaining that this fact was appreciated by herders in Africa who shifted from cattle to camels, to cope with drought and water scarcity.
Camelids have soft feet that do not disturb soil; their browsing habits too are such that they do not eat up entire shrubs, nibbling only a little at a time – this is also offered as the reason for the therapeutic value of camel milk sold by the Godwar camel breeders, whose animals roam freely and eat about 36 varieties of plants, many of which are known to have healing properties and are used as medicines in the Ayurvedic system.
Pastoralists who have lived with herds for several generations have a vast store of knowledge about the animals and their habits, and have also diversified camelids into hundreds of breeds, from which they have developed numerous useful products. This knowledge must be conserved and passed down to future generations, even as some Raika camel herders in the Godwar region of Rajasthan, for instance, wonder if their children can continue herding animals, even though they themselves had never done anything else.
The report of the event commemorated the work of women in herding communities, who have emerged as leaders in developing and marketing produce from the animals. “Camelid pastoralists are facing land dispossession and policies and programmes that do not recognize their rights. Land and mobility rights are important factors for the future of camelid pastoralism… enclosure of customary lands, loss of access rights to land are among the most important threats faced in recent decades. Other threats … growth of extractive industries (mining, oil and gas) and green energy projects, dam building and infrastructure construction, extension of commercial agribusiness and urbanization,” the note stated, listing all the problems encountered by pastoral groups.
The nomadic pastoral mode of life is healthy for people, animals and the planet, and deserves to be not just conserved, but thrive. It is a model of food and fibre production that is part of cultural heritage, and governments and policymakers, in their thrust for “development” must not be allowed to ignore this sustainable mode of existence. Legal, institutional and financial support must be made available to these communities, and young people must be encouraged to take to this practice to foster the transfer of pastoral knowledge across generations.  
Camel herders from Mongolia and Kenya were also part of the event; one online event saw attendance by researchers and academics in Peru, US and UAE. The International Year of Camelids, 2024, will be followed in 2026 by the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists. The preparation for that too has already begun, with maps being compiled of all areas where such communities exist. 
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*Freelance journalist 

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