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Surviving in the dried out world of the Algerian steppe

How are stock breeders in the Western steppe in Algeria facing climate disruptions? Our reporter went to meet those affected in order to understand the situation on the ground.

Not that it is plainly obvious to them, but many observers are increasingly convinced that the Algerian steppe, or at least that of the Southern region of Oran, is suffering from the ongoing deterioration of its biological potential due to the combined actions of Man and nature. Our reporter went to meet Steppe communities – agro-pastoralists, stock breeders, researchers and political officials – to understand the situation on the ground. 

We met an old acquaintance, from the Agricultural school (ERA) of Sidi Bel Abbès, in Ain El Hadjar, a town in the wilaya of Saïda where we started our long journey through the Hautes Plaines. This sheep breeder who also secures transporting the cattle between different weekly markets in the region seemed well aware of the rising impact of climate phenomena on the surroundings and their inhabitants. 

All along the way leading to the Marhoum daïra, south of Sidi Bel Abbès, he did not fail to describe in detail the great difficulties facing the farmers in this vast pastoral zone. “You will realize it yourselves…  Chouf el aïn, terk essoual (Sight rids itself of questions)”, he told us as he dropped us off at our destination: a small, isolated village located at a stone’s throw from the ancient El Yaagoubia.

A blistering cold welcomed us as we got off the rear cabin of the truck. A young man wearing a djellaba and scanning for our arrival in the silence of the night suggested accompanying us to the designated rendez-vous place. 

El ghaith! El ghaith! El ghaith!”. As the first raindrops began to fall, a voice with a certain grimness to it, interspersed with choir invocations, rose from the canvas tent. Many agro-pastoralists from the surrounding area were awaiting our arrival. 

Gathered by Hadj Maamar, a level-headed, sound adviser of an old man, the present company did not seem much unsettled by our intrusion at such a late hour. We joined the faithful group to continue the douas and dhikr with equal humility, hands raised to the sky and eyes toward the direction of Mecca, imploring out loud the Almimghty for his indulgence to continue spreading his bountiful rain on the parched land. 

What followed was a moment of great emotion. Sighs and barely perceptible, muffled sobs were heard. “When men cry, tears of blood run in their veins to water the dry hearts, much like rain water acts on arid soils”, whispered the wise old-timer in a mournful voice. 

A major environmental and social challenge

Once the adjunct religious service accomplished, and due to the persisting rain and its accompanying heavy hail, Hadj Maamar resolved to brandish his cane toward a high pan of the tent to inform everyone of the end of the ritual. “May God accept our prayers and douas: You may leave, my sons… Only family leaders are kindly requested to stay here with our hosts”.

The youngsters complied with the orders of the traditional chief and scattered right away under the silence of the night. Some headed for their homes – solid buildings as well as low tents made of wool and camel hair – and others for the sheepfolds and the improbable, old-style zibai, a sort of hedges made of thorny bushes and barbed wires where their herds of sheep are parked. 

As for us, and as guests of the extended family – relatives, allies and neighbors combined -, the cheikh invited us together with the remaining wise men to share in the main room of a neighboring solid house a couscous with lamb meat, a typical dish of the land garnished in pumpkin, chickpeas, dried grapes and sugared almonds. 

It was an opportunity for the dinner guests to inquire about the aim of our visit and the places we intend to visit along the way. 

“Besides official visits covered by a large number of media outlets, we are not used to seeing or receiving journalists who are free from any tutelage, and in the deep end of the Steppe region of Oran at that…”, remarked as an aside one speaker, perfectly literate in Arabic, who seemed to be well informed on the reality of media in Algeria and the relationships the regime maintains with them. 

“Freedom of expression, the right to information, difficulties of independent media, real democracy…” were among the main themes tackled with us as mediators and they ended up obtaining the adhesion of the gathered assistance. 

Solidarity in adversity: Agropastoralists consult each other in the middle of a barren land. Photo: Mohamed Mir.

Apart from a small dig at a certain category of “communicators”, the discussion, by the grace of “Cheikh el Oqal”, ended up focusing on the key question that was worrying us and which justified our presence among them – that is to understand the impact of climate changes on men and their environment. Especially relating to the practice of stock breeding. 

“Everything is linked!”, our incorrigible censor wrapped up, and rightly so. That is indeed the case of the steppe in the southern region of Oran where climate disruptions have inevitably caused chain upsets, endogenous ones (the steppe ecosystem and its components) as well as exogenous ones (the nature of exchanges and links to the outside). 

The emergence of “El Biyata”, or semi-nomadism

The disturbance of natural systems and, consequently, the continued degradation of the steppe, in addition to the harmful action of humans through clearing and the painful events of the dark decade, ended up impacting the way of life and entrepreneurship of the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. 

Without transhumance (Achaba to the Tell in summer, Azzaba to the sahara in winter) disappearing completely, the steppe saw the emergence of a light form of semi-nomadism in the movement of communities: “El Biyata”, that is. 

According to Hadj Abdelkader, a farmer-breeder from Marhoum who lost his agro-pastoralist status after opting for the complete sedentarisation of his family in the city, separated from farm life, El Biyata consists of the movement of affected agro-pastoralists to routes distant some ten to twenty kilometers from their places of residence and stays of less than a month in the countryside depending on fodder availability in the pasture area.

Only adult males as well as shepherds and farm employees are mobilized during this kind of extra-mural journeys. 

Women, on the other hand, are not involved. They are even less involved in accomplishing several tasks auxiliary to the masculine work which was theirs during normal times or of transhumance: helping, assembling and disassembling tents, milking ewes, pasturing sheep in the vicinity of tents, doing weaving, pottery or plaiting work…

The alienation and/or disengagement of women from this extra household activity segment has caused an enormous revenue loss for affected families, condemning them to precariousness and the dissolution of links with their agro-pastoralist community of origin. 

Small breeders are the most affected category. Some had to sell off what was left of their herds and became laborers in the few active construction sites in the region. Others were unable or unwilling to venture outside the livestock sector and became employed as shepherds for large breeders. The latter ensured hard shelter for them and their families, supply in foodstuffs and the choice between a monthly salary bordering 50.000 dinars or the ownership of some lambs after assisting ewes when giving birth.

Among large and medium pastors from the daïras of Marhoum and Ras El Ma, a number of them still opted for the azzaba to the south last winter and proved their attachment to seasonal transhumance practice as inherited from their forefathers. We were made aware of their presence a little further south between El Bayadh and Béchar where islets of spontaneous vegetation were preserved thanks to the rare microclimates in the region. 

Ovine breeding challenges in steppe areas

Nomadic agro-pastoralists as well as sedentary farmer-breeders now agree that the primary cause of the decline in stock-breeding activity in the steppe, in addition to the shrinking of the esparto aquifer, is linked to the scarcity of a large number of other natural plants such as mugwort, esparto, drinn…

The persistence of the drought phenomenon added to the very weakened quality of the soils by clearing and burning has forced breeders and their shepherds to fall back on the undergrowth in the forests of Taourira, Tafessour and Tagouraya which contain abundant, spontaneous vegetation. 

But they quickly found themselves at odds with the forestry department. The latter prohibits access to these spaces with the clattering berber toponymy, for security reasons. There was no alternative left but the concentrated livestock feed which are controlled by supplier bodies.

Once again, and despite the prudential measures put in place by the tutelary department, barley distribution by the ONAB and the CCLS and of bran by the ERIAD and private flour mills revealed all the operational shortages on the ground. 

According to a breeder from Bir El Hmam, who underwent the experience, a large quantity of these two feed products surreptitiously ends up in the informal circuits of weekly livestock markets for shameless speculation benefiting only groups of resellers who own transportation means and the necessary guarantee funds required by the mills.

Only the breeders organized under cooperatives appear to be able to get an upper hand. The rest, most of them smaller anonymous breeders, are facing all the troubles in the world to stock up on those products. 

Local authorities are not liable in this matter of livestock feeding, but the mayor of Marhoum, Mohamed Beneddine, has not shied away from mentioning that the High commissionership for the development of the steppe (HCDS) brings a considerable contribution, providing breeders with protected perimeters of over 5000 hectares of Gatfa (artiplex fodder) in El Mekmen and Berriouane. 

The gradual revegetation led by the HCDS-West allowed a significant rise in the quantity of fodder units on initially degraded paths. 

As a driving force in land use planning and rangeland strategy, the development of the available surface water in the steppe has logically constituted one of the main lines of work of the HCDS carried out along with regenerating degraded ground cover and prohibiting grazing in rehabilitated spaces.

Thanks to the development of watercourse cadastres and the inventory of all water availability, this organization has managed to develop more than half of the existing resources with projections over 5 years aiming to reach or exceed 80%.

A smudge on the picture, however, is the lack of equipment in water drillings accomplished by the HCDS which end up little or not exploited at all by breeders. 

In the town of Marhoum, there are at least ten drillings lacking motor pumps for 20 years now. 

Other small pastoral hydraulic works carried out in scattered areas of Taoudmout and Oum Edoud have had varying fortunes. The companies in charge of the works did not hesitate to cheat, pretending during delivery ceremonies that the developed sites were reliable while they had in fact filled them with water using cisterns.

Speaking during a recent session of the APW, the wali of Sidi Bel Abbès revealed that no less than 10 wells drilled by the HCDS are not operational and therefore totally unused to date by the breeders.

“We do not believe in the irreversibility of these phenomena!”

A former technician for the agricultural services, met during a previous interview in Saïda, was very moderate concerning the situation of the steppe. He avoided showing blissful optimism, contrary to the usual attitude of executives from agriculture and forestry sectors. “The problem is that we do not know the steppe very well”, he admitted. 

“We could say that this ecosystem is enduring three types of desertification”, he added. “The first one is ecological (sandstorms hitting areas previously spared by the phenomenon), the second one is social, because we can see that many agro-pastoralists who lost their capital due to drought end up agglutinated around urban centers (Mecheria, Bougtob…), the third is economics, since all we had as fodder potential provided by the paths is disappearing”. 

According to him, the withering away of the esprato steppe started in 1971. “That was the year we first observed the introduction of barley in farming practice in a steppe environment. Illicit laboring was the driving practice that accentuated the desertification phenomenon, until it became irreversible in some places”.

Numbers show the extent of damage. There were barely a million hectares of areas usually and ancestrally labored before 1971. Today, that number became 3,25 million hectares, which is three times as many labored soils. It is an area of 2,5 million hectares taken away from the natural ground cover mainly made up of esprato aquifers. 

Our technician believes in the advent of a general awareness among all actors: “This is to tell you that, currently, the situation needs not only an awareness at all responsibility levels, but also intersectoral support in order to guide development and above all avoid lawless laborings that strongly weakened soils and tend to jeopardize the future of the steppe ecosystem and that of the whole pastoral community”.  

As pointed out by the same technician, and despite some encouraging results in rehabilitated stations and paths, the situation remains worrying in certain steppe zones south of Oran (R’djem Demouche, Ras El Ma, Naâma…) where the desertification phenomenon seems almost irreversible. But is hope in the regeneration of the esparto sea completely compromised?

“We do not believe in the irreversibility of these phenomena”, confided our interlocutor. “We currently have great spaces of protection and preservation, and through techniques of regeneration and of grazing prohibition in pastoral plantations, we were able to save a good chunk of the steppe that was degraded”. 

He points as proof to the “treatment of satellite imagery produced by the national center of spatial techniques (CNTS) which gives year and year out comparative results that are quite encouraging relating to the spaces affected by pastoral planning”. 

As for academic researchers, who are a lot more rigorous in observing and apprehending phenomena and in picking calculation and analysis tools, they are reflecting through their works a different image of reality that is often unsettling. 

When it comes precisely to the study of the steppe ecosystem and the threat of desertification or desertization, according to the degradation level observed from one zone to another, the findings and conclusions of our researchers suffer no dissent: “There is in fact immediate danger!”. 

“The first signs indicating a desertification phenomenon are in fact present, that’s through the simultaneous disappearance of a number of steppe plants and the apparition of important sand deposits in different places south of the wilaya, precisely in the town of R’Djem Demouche south of the daïra of Ras el Ma”, warned the researchers we contacted. 

Desert at our doors!

The steppe daïras of Marhoum and Ras El Ma, located more than 100 kilometers south of the city of Sidi Bel-Abbès, have long suffered, and today more than ever, the harmful results of drought and desertification.

The diagnosis established on this first natural front line between the Tellian North and the Saharan South is far from optimistic. A visit to R’Djem Demouche allowed us to witness it firsthand. From the outset, it is believed that the desert is already at our doorstep, that is to say about sixty kilometers in a direct line from the Mediterranean coast.

If there ever was an aggravating element, a little further south, in the wilaya of Naâma, the situation is considered even more worrying. A research work entitled “Contribution to the study of the process of desertification of the Algerian steppe: case of the region of Nâama (Algeria)”, confirms the diagnosis established in this area as to the persistence of degradation factors in this extremely weakened environment by the combined action of man and nature.

This research, led by professors Kheloufi Benabdeli and Tarik Bouchtata from the university of Mascara, is meant as an umpteenth alert. It lists three degradation factors. 

“The first element is ecological (sandstorms coming in areas that were up to now spared by the phenomenon), the second element is social, insofar as many agro-pastoralists who lost their capital because of drought, end up agglutinated around urban centers in the Hautes Plaines of the steppe, the third is economics, since all we had as fodder potential provided by the paths up to now is disappearing”. 

In short, in the eyes of the two researchers “all the conclusions of various studies on the steppe confirm that this ecosystem is deteriorating at a worrying rate, with advanced alteration of the physical and biotic environment”.

“The mechanism of ”steppization” and ”desertification” in arid zones can be summed up with the following equation: Weakened ecosystem + periodic drought but over a fairly long period + strong anthropozoic pressure + mismanagement of natural resources = desertification”, they point out in their study.

Data gathered at around twenty stations sadly corroborate this terrifyingly obvious situation of the inexorable advance of the desert. 

“It is as if throughout the study area, the pre-desert advanced 110 km in a south-north direction. This visually perceptible regression on the ground has been scientifically corroborated by the results of the chemical and statistical analysis carried out at the time”, the two researchers emphasized.

SODEA and the aborted project of agroforestry perimeters 

The situation is assessed as very critical by some and nuanced by others, but it hasn’t left economic actors indifferent. Among others, those of SODEA (agricultural development company – a subsidiary of the Hasnaoui private group) who advocated for creating new agroforestry perimeters in steppe areas. 

As part of the steppe development plan, the fight against desertification and further supported by a technical and scientific partnership agreement signed with the High Commission for the Development of the Steppe (HCDS), this project took the form of small agro-pastoralist farms, of 25 hectares each, combined with sheep farming and other ancillary activities.

In more detail, the program included the cultivation and delivery by SODEA of some 30,000 plants of Medicago Arborea, 2.4 million plants of Atriplex, the behavioral testing of a variety of pistachio tree while proceeding, at the same time in various experiments on site and in laboratory aiming to improve the process and cultural management of the various species planned.

It goes without saying that the interest of this kind of projects for both partners resides mostly in the fact that they subscribed to a dynamic of intensive development of the steppe by offering “ecologically durable, socially accepted and economically viable” solutions, as desired by by the main initiators of the national agricultural development plan and its related programs specifically put in place for safeguarding this ecosystem and improving the quality of life of the pastoral community. 

Knowing, by way of argument, that a program of this nature, not underpinned by social and commercial objectives, will be in this field of repopulating arid zones little bearer of creative energies.

Promoters of this ambitious project, however, bumped once again into the multiplicity of bureaucratic obstacles still prevailing in the agriculture and forestry sectors. It was another blow for this already weak natural ecosystem and exposed to all sorts of contingencies due to inconsistent political decisions. 

Slaughter of the breeding ewes

For having been more or less well identified by relevant bodies (forestry administration, HCDS, local authorities, research laboratories), the persistence of drought and the desert advance evidently do not seem to be the only worrying reasons when it comes to preserving the steppe and the stability of its inhabitants. 

Other factors interact with the mentioned phenomena and go unnoticed by “experts”. The most significant among those is related to ovine herd numbers which saw in 2023 an inexplicable and disconcerting drop. 

According to Hadj Miloud Bekhaled, the president of the agriculture chamber of Sidi Bel Abbès, a door-to-door census performed in recent months by the agriculture department of Sidi Bel Abbès found around 400 000 sheep, that is 600 000 less than the million heads previously enumerated. 

The most serious aspect in this case resides in the fact that no accountable executive from the sector, at the commune or at the wilaya, has been able to anticipate the occurrence of such a drop in numbers, and even less so to justify the differences and their evolution over time. No technical, sanitary or other explanation was given to explain the new numbers. 

Asked about the ins and outs of this veritable “statistical disaster”, some sources have put forward several hypotheses. Among other things, fake breeders claim to own herds of sheep just to be able to benefit from a quota of barley and bran that they resell to real breeders for twice the price (2,000 dinars per quintal is the buying price).

On another level, a very serious fact, a horse dealer revealed to us the existence in Ras El Ma, a pastoral commune which has the highest sheep numbers in the wilaya, of a network of smugglers and breeders who have become masters in sheep transborder trafficking, this time towards neighboring Tunisia and Libya, where people are fond of the Hamra sheep breed, threatened with extinction on the steppe Hautes Plaines of the region of Oran.

Others, on the other hand, mainly representatives of the agricultural profession, accuse breeders, horse dealers and butchers, who have a tendency to massacre the sheep herd through a massive slaughter of ewes under five years old and two-year hogget ewes.

This practice, which risks decimating this category of sheep in the more or less short term, has led to a spectacular drop in the renewal rate of herds in the steppe.

The national veterinary authority and its wilaya inspections are more than ever challenged to ensure the control of cattle markets and slaughterhouses in order to protect ewes and hogget breeding sheep.

New approach to land use planning

Our journey of more than four days through the vast steppe of western Algeria was a most rewarding experience, in the sense that it allowed us to challenge certain preconceived ideas about operational efficiency that the organizations and institutions in charge of the “steppe file” attribute to themselves.

In a phone conversation with professor Kheloufi Benabdeli, head of the “geo-environment and areas development” laboratory at the university of Masara, he rightly underlined this assessment of facts, and thus reinforcing the observations, details and lessons we collected on the ground relating to the “inconsistency of policies” conducted up to now by public authorities for planning and developing the steppe. 

The researcher believes that “considerable amounts of money were allocated to the program of path improvement through carrying out a series of protection, equipment and clearing actions for the cereal growing sector. However, the results obtained are mixed, even negative. Worse still, for lack of suitable strategies, the achievements could not be maintained and were either degraded or left unused, revealing themselves to be totally unsuited to the ecological vocation of the steppe space”.

“Furthermore,” adds Professor Benabdeli, “the ban on labor in the steppe areas at the beginning of the 1970s was not respected because of the development policy launched in parallel relating to the accession to land ownership. This policy has also led to reckless clearing of steppe plant formations”.

The melancholic beauty of the steppe: a field of esparto under a gray sky. Photo: Mohamed Mir.

The researcher is categorical when it comes to the operating mode Algeria should now adopt, rightly underlining that “another approach in terms of land use planning is now more than ever needed in order to preserve the richness and diversity of these strategic ecosystems”. 

That, we are tempted to conclude with our researcher, should be within a real plan of integrated and durable development that produces wealth and hope for a living space that has long suffered from the vegetal and technicist approach of the pseudo-experts of the Algerian steppe.