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An attempt to bring back a semblance of the nomadic way of life: reintroducing herd migration

13 august 2013, 15:22
0

For hundreds of years Kazakhstan’s nomads used a proven system to keep their animals fit and productive.

They moved cattle, horses, sheet and camels to lush pastures at higher elevations in summer, then returned them to grazing lands around their permanent, lower-elevation settlements in winter. Some of the migration routes were more than 1,000 kilometers long.

Two developments in the 20th Century combined to destroy the tradition, making it hard for small flock owners to earn a living in today’s market economy, according to speakers at an international conference at Nazarbayev University last week.

One development was Soviet collectivization of agriculture. The other was the privatization of land after Kazakhstan became independent.

A ray of hope is that four villages in Almaty Province have teamed up with the United Nations Development Program and local and regional officials in an experiment to revive the herd-migration system. It may lead to system’s reintroduction across Kazakhstan, although on a much smaller scale than in nomad times.

A pilot project to bring back herd migration in Almaty Province has put satellite phones in the hands of herders like this one. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

A pilot project to bring back herd migration in Almaty Province has put satellite phones in the hands of herders like this one. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

The first disruption of Kazakhstan’s herd-migration system in the 20th Century was the Soviets’ collectivization of agriculture in the 1920s, Bakhtiyar Sadyk told me in an interview during the conference.

The gathering of the European Society for Central Asian Studies where he spoke covered a wide array of intriguing topics, from history to literature to ethnology and beyond.

Several sessions were devoted to pastoralism – or the grazing of animals -- both historical and contemporary.

Sadyk was a good choice to give a presentation on today’s pastoralism. He is a professor at the Institute of Animal Husbandry in Almaty and the UNDP’s chief consultant on the quest to bring back the herd-migration system.

When the Soviets collectivized agriculture, they removed herding decisions from the hands of those who knew the animals the best – individual herders, Sadyk told me.

Instead, agricultural bureaucrats, scientists and technicians made the key decisions.

The Almaty Province herd-migration program has also supplied yurts for herders to live in while in distant pastureland. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

The Almaty Province herd-migration program has also supplied yurts for herders to live in while in distant pastureland. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

The Soviets ordered changes in some migration routes, for example. Some became much longer than the traditional routes, others much shorter.

The Soviets also established territories for collectives. This meant that herders from one collective couldn’t graze animals on traditional migration land in another collective without obtaining the second collective’s permission.

The Soviet system wasn’t all negative, however. It provided herders with infrastructure they hadn’t had, such as additional wells.

And collective territories were large, meaning that animals could be transferred within a collective from grazed land to fresher pasture.

It wasn’t as good as moving herds between summer and winter pasture, but for the most part it prevented erosion from over-grazing.

The second disruption to the seasonal grazing system – privatization of land – came hard on the heels of Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991.

During Soviet times more than 90 percent of pasture was government-owned, Sadyk said. Now more than 80 percent is private.

Before independence, animals “were more or less free to travel,” he said. “Now most can be moved only six to seven kilometers from the village where the herders live.”

This has led to overgrazing around villages – and thus erosion. “At present out of 185 million square kilometers of pasture, 48 million has been degraded,” Sadyk said. That’s a quarter of Kazakhstan’s grazing land.

Agriculture expert Balhityar Sadyk has been a major adviser to the pilot project. Photo courtesy of Balhityar Sadyk

Agriculture expert Bakhtiyar Sadyk has been a major adviser to the pilot project. Photo courtesy of Balhityar Sadyk

The other side of the coin is that without stock to keep vegetation in check, a lot of distant, unused pastureland has become weed-infested. If animals were on the land, they would be culling weeds along with grass.

Sadyk said he knows of unused pasture only 100 kilometers away from villages that villagers are unable to use.

One reason is that some of the land between a village and a distant pasture is private—so herders aren’t supposed to move their flocks over it.

Another reason is that it isn’t economical for a herder with only a handful of animals to spend the time it takes to move them to a far-away pasture and back, Sadyk said. The herder could make more money spending his time on other pursuits.

A third reason is that many wells along traditional migration routes have dried up.

The Almaty Province pilot project has also built wells for herders moving their flocks considerable distances. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

The Almaty Province pilot project has also built wells for herders moving their flocks considerable distances. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

Still another is that smaller herders lack the equipment to live in distant pastureland while their animals graze there. They have no tents or electrical generators, for example.

Sadyk, who has a Ph.D. from the Temiryazev Agricultural University in Moscow and decades of animal husbandry experience, said four villages in Almaty Province have taken advantage of a four-year-old initiative by UNDP and local and regional officials to re-introduce the herd-migration system.

Each of the villages set up Zhailum Committees in2009 to implement the initiative. The Kazakh word “Zhailum” means distant pasture.

The committees have had two main objectives: Preventing land around their villages from being further eroded, and finding ways to get animals to distant pasture.

A crucial step in meeting the erosion-reduction goal was establishing a pasture management system for the land around each village – rules aimed at preventing over-grazing.

The committees also have come up with ways to restore land that’s already degraded, such as reseeding.

Each of the committees was carefully crafted to include key stakeholders, giving the initiative instant credibility with the villagers.

The 13 to 15 members in each group include village elders, herders from small, medium-sized and large operations, village mayors and representatives of the provincial governor’s office. A special effort was made to include women on the committees, Sadyk said.

The pilot project has supplied solar power generators to give herders electricity. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

The pilot project has supplied solar power generators to give herders electricity. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Program

In addition to creating a pasture management system for the land near each village, the Zhailum Committees identified resources that villagers would need to use distant pasture.

UNDP grants have covered the costs, which have included restoring dried-up wells and digging new ones, and providing herders with tents, solar-powered generators and satellite phones.

UNDP officials say the amount of eroded land around the villages has dropped by 23 percent and the amount of weed-infested distant land by nearly 9 percent.

An even happier note for the villagers is that their average income has risen 32 percent since the pilot project started, UNDP says.

Meanwhile, the government is demonstrating its support for the pastureland-management concept by allocating $186 million for grazing-land reclamation and development over the next seven years.

A sizable chunk of the money, which is being spent under the AgroBusiness 2020 Program, will go toward creating 4,000 wells for watering stock.

Sadyk said two steps could accelerate the effort to revive the herd-migration system. One is a national pastureland-management law. Another is cheap government loans to small herders.

The success of the Almaty Province pilot project attracted the attention of Parliament a couple of years ago.

Sadyk and other experts helped lawmakers draft national pastureland-management legislation.

The parliamentarians are seeking comment on the legislation from the government agencies it would affect – such as the Agriculture Ministry.

They will use the feedback to make revisions in the draft that they think are important. Then they will enact the law.

As for cheap government loans, Sadyk considers them “crucial” to the long-term success of smaller herders.

A typical herder in the four pilot-project villages makes only a few hundred dollars a year – too little to buy even a moderately priced piece of equipment or an important supply such as seed.


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