Involving Communities in Pasture Management: The Challenge of Pasture Committees in Kyrgyzstan

by Irène Mestre

Irene MestreWhen I arrived in Kyrgyzstan to investigate pasture management in July 2010, the new Law “On Pastures” had been in place for only just over a year (it was released on January 29, 2009). During summer 2010, the content of the new pastoral regulation was hardly known by pasture users, or by governmental and local self-governance employees (ayil okmotu, equivalent to municipalities). That was only a few months after the 2010 protests which overthrew President Bakiev and tensions around this so-called “Bakiev’s Law” were perceptible. After years of centralized management, the law aimed at implementing a community-based management of pastures. At the village level (ayil ayimak), all pasture users are members of the Pasture Users Association (PUA) and elect the Pasture Committee (PC). This is the executive body in charge of managing, allocating and monitoring pastures. It collects pasture use fees and manages its own budget. Part of it, the land tax, is transferred to the central budget as pastures are state property. The new law carries environmental, economic, and social expectations: the degradation of pastures underpinned the promotion of this model and made sustainable management essential. The law also intended to improve social equity by ensuring equal access to all pasture users and to foster long term economic benefits by preserving resources for livestock production.

Four years after the adoption of the law, 454 Pasture Committees work all over the country. Nevertheless, their existence is threatened and many obstacles prevent them from fulfilling their missions. In September 2013, Ismail Isakov, a deputy of the National Parliament, suggested that the PCs should be abolished. He accused PCs of embezzling the land tax that should be transferred to governmental funds. At exactly the same time, in the Jaiyl district a member of the PC was charged with embezzlement and in the Panfilov district pasture users threatened to block the road because the PC had not addressed their pasture use problems. A lack of transparency and access to decision-making processes, problems with accounting, and the simultaneous presence of different types of governance are persistent concerns, especially as they are key-points for the sustainability of community-based management.

Such questions about governance have been raised since the very beginning of the PCs. During the implementation phase of the new community-based management regulations, trainings were held in villages while shepherds were on summer pastures. Information was thus not equally available to all stakeholders. It is still difficult for those who live far from the village centers, where Pasture Committees are usually located, to be privy to the decision-making processes. This typically includes herders of large flocks and shepherds who spend summer on remote pastures and sometimes have their winter settlement outside the villages. Those who stay in the village center are farmers mainly involved in crop or forage production, who leave their animals in shepherds’ care during summer. As such examples show, the representativeness of the PCs should be critically questioned and certainly improved.

In a setting where a top-down approach still strongly persists, no one can expect the text of the law to teach the Pasture Committees about governance and how it can specifically be adapted to their villages. Even so, innovative concrete mechanisms have been implemented. For example, regarding accountability, another hot-topic, in a village of the Naryn district a member of the PC together with pasture users ran parallel accounting of the pasture fees paid to ensure that the head of the PC was not the only person to have access to the information about payments; in this way they aimed to discourage corruption.

The Pasture Department (Ministry of Agriculture and Melioration of the Kyrgyz Republic), NGOs and donors have also put much effort into empowering pasture users. However, they are confronted with a wide variety of different understandings amongst the stakeholders involved in pasture management of how the PCs’ missions should be enforced. First, among pasture users, priorities for pasture management can vary substantially. Then, the perception of the PCs’ work and role differs considerably at village and national levels. While some politicians and governmental institutions measure PCs’ efficiency according to the amount of money they transfer to the central budget, local stakeholders are worried about the access to pastures. Moreover, new tasks have been added to the list of Pasture Committee responsibilities, for example, preventive veterinary measures and ecosystem management. Members of PCs are also asked to collaborate with a large array of very different types of pasture users, ranging from individual bee-keepers to large mining companies, and with governmental institutions dealing with natural resources. In the wide range of actions they have to carry out, specialists, technicians and governmental institutions are used to the former top-down approach. This creates a conflict between the older centralized management approach and the newer approach where decision-making and technical solutions are in the users’ hands.

The challenge that PCs face at the moment goes beyond needing to find ways of involving their local communities; it is also about how to gather specialists, politicians and governmental institutions around the new community-based management system. All these different stakeholders have to elaborate their decision-making process to determine the role of the integration model of Pasture Committees in the global scheme of the governance of natural resources.

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:

Irène Mestre is a geographer working on rural areas of Central Asia. She is a PhD student at the Jean Moulin-Lyon 3 University and her research is supported by the pluridisciplinary joint research unit UMR 5600, the Centre for Development and Environment of the University of Bern and the French Institute of Central Asian Studies.