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The Native Perspective, Episode 14: Fulani

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Understanding the Fulani

The world’s largest nomadic group: that is how the Fula people or Fulani are often described. With no less than 20 million of them scattered across Western Africa, these indigenous people’s lives were once intrinsically pastoral, their livelihood focusing on taking care of and maintaining their herd [1]. The nomadic herding of cattle, sheep and goats is what Fulani heritage is organised around.

Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, and Niger are where the Fulani people are primarily located. They are also distributed in Egypt and the Central African Republic [2].

Among other populations, the ancestors of the Fulani appear to have been driven out of the Sahara when its desertification began in the third millennium B.C [3]. From the fifth through the eleventh centuries, the Fulani people, whose origins can be traced to southern Mauritania at the beginning of the Christian period, became a significant cultural force in Futa Toro, Senegambia. They moved further east from there.

Of the more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Fulani make up the majority and are the most powerful politically. Along with Hausa, English, French, and Arabic, they also speak the Fula languages. Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, is of Fulani descent.

The Fulani were early converts to Islam, taking part in the "jihads" that made them the dominating social and economic force in Western Africa throughout the 16th century. 90% of Fulani identify as Muslims. Many of the Fulani's beliefs are shared by other Muslims in West Africa [4]. Through the influence of Fulani clerics, they use Islam to set themselves apart from other people, but also to maintain connections with other African groups. In the Fulani understanding, the culture is perceived as never-changes, remaining consistent over time.

The oral literature of the Fulani is renowned for celebrating the idea of "Pulaaku" and defining Fulani identity. The Fulani take great pride in their own code, which differs from country to country, yet plays a crucial role in their daily lives of all [5]. That is what "Pulaaku" is referred to. The decorum, gallantry, and excellent manners of a Fulani individual are known as the "Pulaaku". Smoking, drinking, killing, or committing adultery go against the moral ways of “Pulaaku”. If someone violates the Code of Behaviour(s), they are assessed by the community according to the "Pulaaku" scale of violation. Self-defense is apparently accepted in the "Pulaaku," even though violence is generally not tolerated.

Additionally, cattle plays a central role in the Fulani way of life. The Fulani family receives income and food from cattle, they are the a valuable resource. The animals are often quite dear to the Fulani, with some of them even have been granted names. The Islamic religion and the people in the area have both made an impact on Fulani oral literature. The main genres of Fulani literature are riddles, proverbs, magic formulas, legends, stories, and poetry. Both amateurs and professionals use these genres in songs.

Adorned with religion, strong moral code and tradition, the Fulani culture does not fall short on artistic expression either. There are many different ways that Fulani art is presented, including gourds that have been decorated and textiles that feature elaborate geometric motifs. Black, red, yellow, and white are the most frequently used colours in Fulani art. Decorative gourds have a significant role in a woman's social and economic status. Women can also carry objects on their heads with their hairstyles, which they embellish with silver picks and other decorations.

Farmer-Herder Disputes Keep Worsening

It comes as no surprise that certain areas in Africa are especially vulnerable to climate change, Niger in particular - a nation where more than 80% of the people rely on agriculture for their livelihood [6]. The Fulani are not exempt from struggles regarding worsening climate, in fact, climate change has pushed some groups of Fulani into socioeconomic conflicts.

In close vicinity to the Sahara desert, the Sahel region is known as a sizable semi-arid geographical mass. It spans from Eritrea on the opposite Red Sea coast to Senegal on Africa's western coast [7]. There temperatures have risen and desertification has been accelerated due to changing climatic conditions and human activity, such as excessive grazing, deforestation, and the exploitation of soils for export-oriented commodities [8]. Nomadic Fulani herders are now competing with settled Zarma agriculturalists for land and water because extreme conditions have pushed them southward. As a result, there have been occasional incidents of violence and rising tensions between the two groups.

Deforestation and overgrazing have an impact on rainfall patterns in this area as well, which ends up deteriorating soil and desertification. Consequentely, more and more herders in the Sahel, like the Fulani, travel to other areas, where they regularly trespass on other tribes' lands, particularly during dry spells. So, disputes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers frequently center around crop damage brought on by herds and depleted water supplies. What is particularly concerning though is that the rising tensions often result in violence. For instance, following the famine and drought in 1997, attacks between Zarma farmers and Fulani herders resulted in seven fatalities and forty-three injuries. The lax enforcement of land registration regulations makes the situation worse.

This is especially the case in Nigeria's Benue state, where between March and June of 2022, 92 individuals were killed in ten separate events. In the country's lush Middle Belt, there is fierce rivalry for grazing and arable land. Fulani herdsmen and established farmers both assert ownership of the land.

The Nigerian government attempted to intensify its efforts between 2015 and 2018 to provide Fulani herdsmen with grazing pasture. They suggested creating open grazing zones that would provide Fulani herdsmen access to land currently occupied by local farmers. This creates unequal political opportunity for ethnic groups and demonstrates distinct favour of herders over farmers. Sadly, this only initiates further escalation of herder-farmer conflict.

Examining the multitude of struggles that indigenous people face all over the world due to climate change, we can almost always conclude that their traditional and local ecological knowledge are key to ensuring food security and establishing more sustainable management of ecosystems, which may help to lessen the consequences of climate change. [9]. However, in this case, climate change not only threatens the safety and quality of life for the indigenous Fulani, but has also caused violence. In many cases, this violence turns fatal. Therefore, proper management of ethnic group safety lies in the hands of the government that ought to find way to equally distribute grounds and manage natural resources. That way certain aspects of climate change may be averted and the conflicts between herders and farmers may begin to resolve.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. Fulani | Britannica

  2. Who Are The Fulani | World Watch Monitor

  3. The Fulani/Fulbe People | The Met

  4. Fulani - Religion and Expressive Culture | Countries and Their Culture

  5. 8 You Should Know Before Visiting the Fulani | Nomadic Tribe

  6. West Africa's Fulani Nomads Fight Climate Change to Survive | France24

  7. Nigeria's Deadly Conflicts Over Water and Grazing Pasture are Escalating - Here's Why | The Conversation

  8. Farmer-Herder Conflict Between Fulani and Zarma in Niger | Climate Diplomacy

  9. Impacts of Climate Change to African Indigenous Communities and Examples of Adaptation Responses | Nature Communications