The material and cultural recovery of camels and camel husbandry among Sahrawi refugees of Western Sahara

Volpato, Gabriele; Howard, Patricia


For nearly 1,500 years, Sahrawi nomads of Western Sahara respected the camel; camels were essential to life in the desert environment, constituting both the main means of production and exchange and the keystone of Sahrawi cultural identity. The capacity to adapt to drought is crucial for the resilience of nomadic populations, which are particularly susceptible to its repeated occurrence. Knowledge of coping strategies is transmitted and embedded deeply within nomads’ cultural institutions. In 1975, the Moroccan army occupied the Sahrawi’s traditional nomadic territory, decimating camel herds and forcing most Sahrawi into refugee camps in Algeria where the Sahrawi became wholly dependent on foreign aid for their sustenance. However, with the signing of a ceasefire agreement in the early 1990s, the Sahrawi recovered part of their nomadic territory and the right to move within it, while at the same time, new flows of capital entered the camps. Refugees began to recover camel husbandry as a livelihood strategy and the camel re-emerged as a potent symbol as refugees and the Polisario Front (the Sahrawi’s political representative) struggle to assert their newfound national identity, regain access to all of their traditional territory and reaffirm their shared nomadic cultural heritage.