MAKURDI, Nigeria (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the ambulances drove into the square in Makurdi city carrying more than 70 coffins, the air filled with the sound of weeping as hundreds of people waited for their loved ones to be buried.
Outside the square, thousands lined the streets to watch the funeral procession.
The mass funeral in January 2018 for members of the Tiv farming community - who had died in violent clashes with semi-nomadic herders - was a painful reminder that fighting over farmland and grazing has been happening with devastating regularity in central Nigeria’s Benue state.
As climate change brings harsher and longer droughts, northern Nigerian pastoralists have been pushed further south in search of grazing for their animals, said Israel Okpe of the local non-profit Pastoral Resolve, which works to assist pastoralist groups.
But farmed areas also are expanding, leaving far less open grazing land available for pastoralists, and leading to herds more frequently straying into crops.
To try to stop conflicts, state officials in 2017 instituted a law prohibiting the long-held practice of herders grazing their animals on any open land.
Supporters of the legislation say it is needed to help protect the livelihoods of farmers already struggling with recurring drought.
But critics say livestock are also a key part of the country’s economy - and restricting age-old pastoralist practice will leave herders with only bad options: stay in Benue and break the law, travel to a nearby state and risk clashing with farmers there, or watch their animals die.
Desertification and land degradation due to drought affect more than 350,000 hectares (860,000 acres) of arable land in Nigeria every year, according to the Nigerian Meteorological Agency.
Research by the University of Ibadan shows that 15 of the country’s 19 northern states are struggling with desertification.
That means available grazing land in the north is diminishing at an alarming rate, said Shettima Mohammed, the Benue state secretary for the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria.
Mohammed, whose organization represents pastoralists from the Fulani tribe, one of the country’s largest ethnic groups, said herders moving their animals south to Benue, known as the nation’s food basket, often find the only available fodder is crops.
But “when cattle rearers feed on farmers’ crops, farmers retaliate by killing their cows,” he said.
Benue’s anti-grazing law says that cattle caught feeding on farmland can be impounded and their owners required to pay a fine to the government to free each animal: 2,000 naira ($5) for each day a cow is in custody.
“If (herders) are apprehended grazing openly, we fine them and we prosecute the herders in court for deliberating going against the law,” Edward Amali, Benue state director of livestock services, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In May, state governor Samuel Orton told reporters that the Livestock Guards, an agency created to enforce the grazing law, had arrested about 400 herders and convicted 50 for breaking the law in Benue over the last two years.
Godwin Gbawuan, a farmer in Gbajimba, in northern Benue, said that in his view the law is working well.
His maize and millet crops were regularly eaten by cattle in the past, but since the law was implemented his farms have been untouched, he said.
“I am very happy with the law,” he said.
But Mohammed of Miyetti Allah said many Fulani pastoralists choose to ignore the law, saying they have the right to move with their herds and graze without restrictions as they have done for generations.
“Traditionally, they can’t keep their cows in one place,” he said. “We want the law to be scrapped.”
The anti-grazing law has now been instituted in four Nigerian states - but Okpe of Pastoral Resolve said deadly conflicts between herders and farmers are still occurring in all of them, and in other nearby states.
There is no reliable record-keeping on fighting between herders and farmers in Nigeria.
But a report published by Amnesty International last year said conflicts over land, water and cattle in five Nigerian states - including Benue and Taraba, both of which have anti-grazing laws - left at least 3,600 people dead between January 2016 and October 2018.
Over half of those deaths happened in 2018, the year after the law came into effect in Benue and the same year that Taraba adopted the law.
In Makurdi, sellers at the local cattle market say the grazing restrictions are bad for business.
Cattle seller Johnson Peters said the law has stopped pastoralists from other parts of the state bringing their livestock to the once-popular market.
“We now travel out of the state to bring cows (to sell), inflating prices,” he said.
Michael Uguru, a professor of agriculture at the University of Nigeria, said he worried that the grazing ban would put even more stress on herders already vulnerable to losing cattle every time drought hits.
Uguru warned that if the ban stays in place, it could cause a drastic drop in livestock contributions to the country’s economic growth and “a total failure of the already fragile agricultural sector.”
In the first quarter of 2019, Nigerian agriculture - including livestock, crops, fishing and forestry - contributed about 22% to the country’s GDP, down from 26% in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to government GDP figures.
Instead, Uguru supports the federal government’s latest idea: to turn herders into ranchers.
In June 2018, it announced the National Livestock Implementation Plan, which aims to create more than 90 ranches in 10 pilot states in Nigeria.
The 10-year project would give herders designated spaces to feed their cattle, reducing the need to graze the animals on private land, government officials said.
But persuading states to set aside large tracts of land for grazing is likely to be difficult, both because of growing demand for farmland and because transfers of community-held land can be a complicated process.
The Benue state government has said it will offer training to herders to help them learn how to effectively run ranches.
But some pastoralists’ rights advocates, including Mohammed of Miyetti Allah, argue that the new system is unlikely to work for pastoralists.
Whatever states and the federal government decide, said Kingsley Udegbunam, a conflict resolution expert at the University of Nigeria, finding a grazing solution that everyone can agree on is now a matter of urgency.
“If there is no consensus, I see anarchy,” he said.
Reporting by Kelechukwu Iruoma, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers climate change, humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate