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Rescuing Kyrgyz pastures - a high level priority

Kyrgyzstan's vast mountain plains make up around 90 per cent of its agricultural land (Ak Terek Fund)
Kyrgyzstan's vast mountain plains make up around 90 per cent of its agricultural land
Ak Terek Fund

The annual, summer migration of herders and shepherds to the high pastures of Kyrgyzstan's Tien Shan mountain range was once a horse-powered operation. Today, the tents, stoves, food and clothes are carried by truck, but very few families are prepared to make the journey, with four months of isolation and simple living as their reward. Members of the Kashka Suu Pasture Users' Association are therefore exceptional. These 17 families, whose sheep and cattle are fattened each summer on the pastures of the Tien Shan's Kashka Suu gorge, are rejuvenating a system of shared pasture management, which has been in failing health since the end of the Soviet era.

The Association formed in the context of a dramatic decline in pasture quality and livestock productivity on a national scale. Kyrgyzstan's vast mountain pastures, which make up 90 per cent of the country's agricultural land are, next to water, its most valuable natural resource. In 2007, however, the government estimated that a third of the pastures were facing serious degradation. In the case of the jailoos, the high summer pastures, that degradation stems from under-grazing. As a result, the valuable forage species are being replaced by moss, weeds and poisonous plants. There is also less regrowth of the young shoots that fatten flocks and herds, causing a decline in meat and milk quality, and in consequence, income.

Pastures in decline

The national neglect of summer pastures has many causes, social, economic and political. The end of the Soviet era saw the break up of the huge flocks and herds that were owned by collective farms. Handing over of the animals to small-scale farmers was done without transfer of the necessary knowledge, technologies and resources to maintain them. The farmers began to excessively exploit nearby pastures and avoided moving their herds to distant grazing lands, where infrastructure and other facilities deteriorated. Trampling and over-grazing, particularly of pastures close to water sources and settlements, has been the result. Independence for Kyrgyzstan also severed the previously guaranteed market for Kyrgyz wool, reducing the incentive to rear large flocks on distant pastures.

The Kyrgyz government estimates one-third of the country's pastures are degraded (Ak Terek Fund)
The Kyrgyz government estimates one-third of the country's pastures are degraded
Ak Terek Fund

Another legacy of Soviet rule that has hampered pasture management is a complex and inefficient system of governance. Kyrgyz pastures are divided into three types, according to their distance from settlements and the season of their use; different authorities - village, district and regional - are responsible for each category. In practice, few farmers are fully aware of the distinction, or that their livestock movements should be sanctioned by one or more of the relevant bodies. Perhaps more importantly, however, state support for summer grazing has dried up. The high pastures were once served by piped water, well-maintained roads and even electricity. As one of the poorest of the Central Asian republics, such support is no longer an option. As a result, the infrastructure has largely fallen into disrepair, further discouraging herders from making the journey.

Reclaiming the land

Pastures in Kyrgyzstan have been owned by the state, both during and after the years of Soviet rule. However, prompted by a fear that land in the Kashka Suu gorge might be sold to a private company, the Pasture Users' Association was keen to secure a long-term right of rental. Assistance came from the Ak Terek Public Fund, a local NGO dedicated to protecting the culture and natural resources of high altitude nomads. As a result, in 2006 a grazing contract was made with the village authorities and borders of the various pastures in the gorge were defined, with assistance from botanists. The State Registry subsequently issued ten-year rental certificates, with each pasture registered to several family heads. Joint use by a number of families was preferred by the Association over individual grazing rights, as it allows for coordinated management across a larger area, an essential factor in achieving pasture health.

Nazgul Esengulova, president of the Ak Terek Fund, believes that the future rehabilitation and management of Kyrgyzstan's pastures will depend on initiatives of this kind, which increase the participation and responsibility of local people. But, while community involvement is vital, extending the model developed in Kashka Suu demands improved legislation in support of common property systems and a clearer definition of the rights of groups and individuals using common land.

Giving control of the pastures to local communities has proven successful (Ak Terek Fund)
Giving control of the pastures to local communities has proven successful
Ak Terek Fund

The example of Kashka Suu demonstrates, however, that giving local people control over state-owned grazing lands can have multiple benefits. With the pasture areas officially mapped, grazing payments that were once easy prey for corrupt officials have been formalised and made more transparent. Rents for the pasture land support the village administration, but also include a social payment, which returns to the local budget and can be used for road repairs and snow clearance in the high passes that lead to summer pastures.

The success of these initiatives is demonstrated by the farmers having created pilot protected areas in the summer pastures, where no grazing takes place, to allow natural seeding of wild fodder plants. Animal movements have also been coordinated, restoring a traditional rotation pattern which prevents both under- and overgrazing. The group is also restructuring its flocks and herds to improve productivity and increase the resilience of local livestock, and is earning a higher price for its animals by selling jointly through a market-based representative. Even the rented truck, the trusty workhorse that brings the families to their green, summer pastures, is shared.

Date published: November 2008


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