Dealing with Death in the Drylands: Identity construction and the adaptation of livestock keeping in pastoral and agro-pastoral Kenya

PhD defence

Julia Wernersson


As the drylands of East Africa surrender to climate change, the trail of distress and death looks starker. Meanwhile, the pastoralists and agro-pastoralists who inhabit these drylands have been marginalised for decades. This has undermined pastoral and agro-pastoral livestock-keeping practices. This dissertation builds on 12 months of ethnographically informed data collected between 2013 and 2016 on livestock keeping and the governing of livestock keeping in West Pokot County, Kenya. It includes formal input from 612 people – livestock keepers, government and non-governmental officials – who have a to role play when disaster strikes and livestock die. The dissertation describes what pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, and officials do to avoid livestock death during drought in West Pokot County, Kenya. It shows that livestock keeping in the drylands is an inherently complex affair that is adaptable and able to handle many extreme events in the drylands. Yet, when drought strikes in the drylands and pastoralists and agro-pastoralists mobilise to keep their animals alive, they reproduce the very identity that allows the state and development organisation to continue marginalising and disempowering them. Climate change adaptation research needs to be able to draw conclusions that work for pastoralists and agro-pastoralists and support the ability to adapt to climate change. I show that current identity conceptualisations in adaptation research serve to undermine pastoralist and agro-pastoralist livestock keeping. Following calls by climate change scholars to support deliberate transformation in the face of adaptation, I argue for a new approach to identity in adaptation research. This approach is based on theories of performativity which allow for analysis into power relations, agency, and ideas of progress and change. Using findings from West Pokot, I argue that this approach is essential for the ability to understand adaptation as social transformation. The framework links relevant practices of livestock keeping to adaptation as well as to processes of subjection and disempowerment that result from power relations. This creates a valuable foundation for policy and research to support the adaptation of pastoral and agro-pastoral livestock keeping in the face of climate change.


Iben Nathan, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

Assesment Committee

Chair: Christian Lund, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen
Emily Boyd, Lund University
Tor Benjaminsen, Norges Miljø- og biovitenskapelige Universitet

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