Who Is Benefiting from the New Pasture Management Reform in Kyrgyzstan?

by Ulan Kasymov

KasymovRearing livestock has always been a vital part of life according to the ancient nomadic traditions of Kyrgyzstan. Despite the slow but steady encroachment of modernity this still remains true for the majority of rural communities today. Many households rely on livestock as part of their livelihood, but as the number of hooves multiply, so do the problems associated with poor pasture management. Pastures close to villages are overgrazed, and remote summer pastures are often underutilized because of decaying infrastructure and their remoteness. Such coordination problems, partially a symptom of the Soviet Union’s collapse, are being tackled through a variety of measures since the pasture legislation reform was introduced in 2009. Yet, reforms need to be undertaken with caution as changes to the laws that govern pasture management can have a serious impact on the way pastures are locally negotiated, allocated and how disputes are resolved.

Since ancient times, Kyrgyz herders and livestock owners have worked together to complement each other’s expertise. Settled people, or jatak, gave their cattle to herders who moved them to seasonal pastures. In exchange, the jatak maintained hayfields, and cared for milking cows that herders relied on. Even today, the institutions of the past remain. Every year, mal koshuu herders and livestock owners negotiate prices, the number of livestock to be cared for, and compensation if an animal is lost, eaten by a predator, or succumbs to sickness. As in the past, these negotiations are still handled verbally. “We are Kyrgyz, nobody writes down agreements,” noted a livestock herder in Chui province. There has always been a strong need for cooperation between herders and livestock owners in order to face the many challenges of the high-mountain pastures. However, political interventions have changed social dynamics and eroded this ancient relationship.

Prior to 2009, the pasture legislation created a power imbalance between different herders’ access to pasture. Many wealthy herders and livestock owners began herding their own livestock individually, instead of providing herding services as they did in the past. As these wealthy livestock owners became increasingly independent, they started to use long-term renting contracts to effectively ‘privatize’ pastures. Moreover, they were also able to restrict mal koshuu herders’ access to pastures through buying or building stables and shelters (saray) on pastures. This contributed to the decline of seasonal migration to pastures and created a problem for herders who were increasingly being denied access to pastures that they relied on in the past. Some mal koshuu herders have voiced their frustration, “There are livestock owners who own sarays on winter and spring pasture and do not allow others access. Why should only one person have the right to use this pasture? Where will the others go?”

In 2009, legislation governing pasture management was radically overhauled to address these environmental and social problems. Pasture Committees were created to regulate and monitor pasture use, land-use regulations were changed, and local communities took responsibility for pasture management. The newly created local Pasture Committees plan pasture use and make sure the plan is followed. The former long-term leasing system that allowed herders to temporarily purchase land was replaced with an annual fee for each animal.

These reforms have certainly helped to reduce power imbalances among herders. These new Pasture Committees have helped to distribute pastures more fairly, and make herders more flexible and mobile. The Pasture Committees appear to have the necessary authority to enforce these changes. As a former member of the Pasture Committee in Naryn recalled, “Kairbek, a wealthy livestock owner who had a long term renting contract and a saray on the spring and autumn pasture, had refused to move to summer pastures in 2011. The Pasture Committee went to the elders’ court, which is in charge on the conflict resolution in order to punish him. This year it seems he went to the summer pasture.”

However, these reforms have not addressed all of the problems. While it is true that the new legislation replaced the long term leasing system, herders that already hold these pasture contracts get to keep them until the end of the lease. Moreover, the new legislation failed to regulate the construction of sarays, and many large and medium livestock owners continue to perpetuate power imbalances by building sarays on pastures. According to experts, in some communities the number of applications to get permission to build a new saray on pastures has increased four-fold in 2013.

The 2009 reforms have certainly been a step in the right direction. By replacing the long-term leasing system and giving power to local Pasture Committees, the power imbalance between herders within communities is shrinking and mal koshuu herders have a higher flexibility. However, the reforms have failed to address other issues, which create power asymmetries among pasture users and lead to over- or under-use of pastures. For example the construction of sarays and fencing of pastures that still allow wealthy herders de facto to restrict access to pastures for mal koshuu herders. Future reforms need to address these issues in order to ensure that the ancient relationship between Kyrgyzstan’s herders and pastures remains intact.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Ulan Kasymov is a PhD researcher in the Division of Resource Economics at the Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany), where he is studying the institutional framework of pasture management in Kyrgyzstan. Ulan’s research interests include institutional economics, environmental governance and rural development.

The author conducted his study within the framework of the InDeCA project funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung. He is grateful to Tom Welling and Michael Wotherspoon for their support.