Historically, cattle herding was Mauritania's most important economic activity. In the 1980s, with a cattle-to-people ratio of three to one--the highest in West Africa--herding provided subsistence for up to 70 percent of the country's people. Herding has been dramatically affected by chronic drought and the attendant rapid advance of the desert. These events have forced shifts in patterns of movement, herd composition and ownership, and increased pressures on lands also occupied by sedentary farmers in the south.
Although sources disagree about herd size, it is clear that numbers have fallen since the 1960s. The decline in herd size probably did not reflect a widescale dyingoff of animals so much as an increasingly permanent shift of herds to better watered lands in Senegal and Mali.
The drought also caused shifts in the herding of camels (traditionally located in the drier north) and of sheep and goats (held by groups all across Mauritania). These changes were less dramatic than those for cattle, however, because camels, sheep, and goats are more resistant to drought. Although decreases in sheep, goat, and camel herd size in drought years could be significant, recovery was more rapid and sustained. In the years following the 1968-73 drought, camel, sheep, and goat herd sizes increased to predrought levels or higher. The same pattern seemed evident during the 1983-85 drought and the recovery years of the late 1980s. Indeed, the overall size of camel, sheep, and goat herds may have risen since the 1960s, as these hardier animals have moved into areas abandoned by cattle herds. This pattern seems to have been particularly true for the camel herds.
In the 1960s, cattle herds in Mauritania were composed of two basic types: the lighter, short-horned zebu, or "maure," which made up perhaps 85 percent of the national herd; and the heavier, long-horned zebu, or "peul." The smaller zebu ranged farther north and were owned by nomadic herders. The larger zebu stayed closer to the better watered riverine areas and were owned by sedentary groups who practiced agriculture in addition to livestock raising.
Although traditional herding patterns persist, considerable changes have taken place. Since the 1968-73 drought, precipitation has been below average. Between 1973 and 1984, as the 150-millimeter isohyet line moved south, livestock often were forced to stay year-round in dry season grazing areas nearer the Senegal River and across the border in Senegal and Mali. Thus, the herd populations were compressed into a smaller area, increasing pressure on land resources and heightening competition among herding groups and between herders and sedentary farmers. Overgrazing in increasingly crowded areas and the cutting of trees and shrubs for firewood and fodder (particularly for sheep and goats) contributed to accelerating desertification and posed a threat to crop production.
Patterns of herd ownership also changed with drought and the impoverishment of the rural sector. Increasingly, herds belonged to urban investors (mostly government officials and traders) and were cared for by hired personnel (drawn from the pool of destitute pastoralists who, having lost herds, migrated to urban areas). Herders began to take advantage of access to public wells to graze herds in areas traditionally controlled by tribal groups. The extent of this growing system of "absentee herding" was difficult to assess; but by the mid-1980s, as much as 40 percent of the national herd was thought to be involved.
The Ministry of Rural Development was responsible for livestock and natural resource conservation. The ministry's National Livestock Department (Direction Nationale d'Elevage-- DNE) was responsible for field services and for the annual rinderpest vaccination campaign. Headquartered in Nouakchott, in the mid-1980s the DNE operated eleven field centers in regional capitals and nineteen veterinary field stations, mostly located in the southern third of the country. Used principally in the annual vaccination campaigns, these field stations offered few other veterinary and extension services. The ministry also operated the National School for Training and Rural Extension (Ecole Nationale de Formation et Vulgarisation Rurale--ENFVR) at Kaédi, which since 1968 has trained veterinary field staff.
In 1981 the government established an autonomous state marketing enterprise, the Mauritanian Livestock Marketing Company (Société Mauritanienne de la Commercialisation du Betail-- SOMECOB). This agency had an official, but unenforceable, monopoly over livestock exports and the authority to intervene in market operations to stabilize domestic livestock prices. SOMECOB was also responsible for the Kaédi Abattoir, constructed in 1975 as an export slaughterhouse. By 1986 it functioned for local municipal consumption only, far below capacity, and SOMECOB's exports were negligible. Private exports of live cattle took place without obstruction from SOMECOB. This trade consisted mostly of unrecorded movements into Senegal, Mali, and countries farther south. In the mid-1980s, the most important market for Mauritanian cattle was domestic, centered on Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, and the mining centers.
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