Nomadism doesn’t need to be “solved” because nomadism isn’t a problem

Alex Jean
3 min readOct 27, 2021

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Governments hate nomads but love nomad tourist photos.

Today, the Guardian published a story describing how the Nigerian government plans to “solve” its nomad “problem” by moving nomads into a nature preserve, effectively ending a way of life that has existed for at least thousands of years. This project is partially funded by the Gates Foundation, because no ancient culture must be allowed to stand in the way of “progress,” in this case, the sale of yet more Microsoft Office licenses. If people are riding around on camels, the Gates Foundation believes, they can’t be sitting in front of a computer, downloading Microsoft Word.

All over the world, nomadism is threatened by anti-nomad government policies and programs, some of which stretch all the way back to the beginning of colonialism and even before. Anti-nomadism is global, pernicious and entrenched. Ottoman Empire administrators traversed the countryside in what are now the Gulf states, trying to coerce nomads to settle. The British spent years registering nomadic boats off the coast of what is now Malaysia, trying to stop nomad fishermen. Governments have forced nomads off their land, settled them in slums, murdered them, stolen their children, put them in concentration camps, killed their livestock, poisoned their wells, depleted their ecosystems, destroyed their languages and culture, deported them, locked them up, blamed them for environmental decay and denied their very existence.

Today, the big trend in “nomad management” is converting nomadic economies, like pastoralism, into settled economies through “development” projects like intensive farming. Nevermind that nomadism has existed for tens of thousands of years, it remains a “problem” for governments to “solve.” Whenever there is competition for land or resources, it is always nomads who must change to give way for the “progress” of settled peoples: oil extraction, timber cutting, palm oil, large-scale fishing, tourism, mining, intensive farming, cities. You name it, a nomad had to give something up so you could have it.

Where are the human rights advocates for nomads? Nowhere. There isn’t even a clearly articulated right to practice nomadism under international law. There is no international agency or organization championing their cause. Many nomads can’t vote and if they try to get involved in politics, they are told they are “members of their tribes” and not citizens. Nomads who object are “terrorists” standing in the way of “progress” or “foreigners” invading peaceful villages and running amok. When they try to qualify as indigenous peoples, many nomads are told that their wanderings make it clear that they are not indigenous at all, but some kind of perpetual foreigner with no standing anywhere, ever. When nomads try to assert ownership of their lands, they are frequently told that nomads can’t own land because they simply “wander” over it. If nomads are lucky, they may feature in the tourism guide put out by the government, covered with charming photos of yurts and camels. This simply continues a long trend of non-nomads taking pictures of nomads, extolling the virtues of the “simple life,” all while supporting policies that violently oppress and exterminate nomadism.

Some countries have tried various programs in fits and starts to save nomadism, but at the rate things are going, there will be more entitled, latte-drinking “global nomads” typing on computers in cafes in Prague than actual nomads. And most governments simply cannot wait for that day to come.

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