Pastoral social-ecological systems (SESs) are adaptive and complex systems rooted in the extensive exploitation of forage plants for livestock-based livelihoods and culture. There are species and relations that are foundational to the existence of these SESs. Nucularia perrinii Batt. (Chenopodiaceae) is an endemic halophyte plant of central and western Sahara seldom cited in the scientific literature. The objective of this study was to investigate the role of this plant in the SES of the Sahrawi camel nomads of Western Sahara.
The data analyzed were collected in the Sahrawi refugee camps of Algeria and in Western Sahara between 2006 and 2010. Fieldwork included semi-structured (n = 38) and retrospective (n = 12) interviews with Sahrawi refugees, nomads, and camel owners about N. perrinii and associated topics (e.g. distribution, importance for camels, camel diseases, associated grazing practices, other forage plants, etc.).
Askaf, as the Sahrawi call the plant, is crucial to camels’ survival, providing salts and water even during dry spells. It holds a pivotal role in the Sahrawi culture, defining the geographical boundaries of the Sahrawi SES and relating the grazing territory with the taste it gives to camel milk, which support the inclusion of askaf as a main element of Sahrawi cultural identity.
We argue that N. perrinii ties the ecology of the western Sahara desert with camel husbandry and associated livelihoods, and further with the culture and worldview of the Sahrawi nomads. We stress the keystone role that some forage plants may have in extensive pastoral SESs worldwide.