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Grazing Disputes in Kyrgyzstan Reveal Pasture Access Concerns for Herders

In early June, livestock herders from two neighboring districts in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn oblast, or administrative region, clashed over disagreements regarding pasture access. Grazing disputes are not new, however, for herders in Kyrgyzstan, where glaciers in the Tien Shan mountains supply water for the herds which graze on the lush meadows of the country’s highlands. Pastoralism is a long-held tradition in this Central Asian country, but it is becoming increasingly complicated by economic, environmental, and governance issues.

Bright green grass covers the slopes of a valley between tall hills. White yurt tents are clustered in the center of the valley.
Yurts in a valley in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: EJ Wolfson via Unsplash

Herders from Kochkor, a district in northern-central Kyrgyzstan, had been granted official rights to access pastures in neighboring Naryn district until 2020. In November of last year, the government extended these rights to 2030 without input from local villagers, which heightened tensions between herders from the two districts. In June, when Kochkor herders moved with their animals up to these summer pastures, overt conflict broke out.

Local residents blocked roads to prevent the Kochkor herders from accessing the pastures the government had granted them rights to use for another decade. Further complicating matters, Kockhor herders also attempted to move their herds into a nearby pasture that was already occupied by herders from a third village.

A few hundred local Naryn district residents and migrating herders from Kochkor confronted each other, with road blockages, shouting, and general commotion lasting for days. While disagreements over land are not uncommon, June’s clashes were larger and more intense than usual and prompted a response from the central government. As Ryskeldi Satke, a Kyrgyz journalist, explained, authorities sent police forces into the area in an attempt to prevent violence, and the central government responded to protests by setting up an inter-agency commission across various government ministries to determine pasture use rights. Kochkor herders—those from the district granted grazing rights by the government—are currently allowed to graze in the nearby pasture until the commission comes to an agreement.

Livestock raising is a critical part of Kyrgyzstan’s economy. Nearly half of the country’s labor force works in agriculture, and a major component of that is herding livestock. Sheep, cattle, goats, and horses provide meat, milk, and wool for those living throughout the country’s mountains and valleys. Throughout Kyrgyz history, nomadic pastoralism has been the traditional way of life. Nowadays, many people, in rural and urban areas alike, have investments in livestock as a means of income. Moreover, the number of livestock in Kyrgyzstan has grown in recent decades, as local residents often use the remittances they receive from relatives who have migrated to Russia and Kazakhstan to purchase animals.

Yurt tents, cattle, and fowl on dark grasses in front of a lake and a backdrop of rugged brown mountains. The sky is big with light clouds.
Son Kul lake in northern Naryn province. Photo: Benjamin Goetzinger via Wikimedia Commons

A highly decentralized system allocates pasture use rights in Kyrgyzstan, which contributes to tensions between herders. Local pasture committees determine rules about pasture use in their villages, such as the timing of movement between summer and winter pastures, fees for pasture use, management of fertilizer, and access to water. “As soon as a shepherd leaves the borders of a village district, his ‘rights’ can be disputed,” Svetlana Jacquesson, a researcher at the American University of Central Asia, told Glacierhub.

According to Irène Mestre, a researcher at the French Institute for Central Asian Studies, borders between pastures have been changing since the Soviet period. While herders from different villages typically accept grazing their animals on a shared pasture, problems can arise when determining which pasture committee collects payment and how much should be paid.

While local pasture committees are meant to represent the views of local resource users, many herders feel that guidelines are not reflective of their needs. Wealthier livestock owners typically occupy spots as representatives on these pasture committees. Kanat Tilekeyev, a senior research fellow at the University of Central Asia’s Institute of Public Policy and Administration, spoke with GlacierHub about the increasing gap between rich and poor farmers. Wealthy livestock owners who own large quantities of animals, Tilekeyev explained, are often the ones whose concerns are heard by local pasture authorities, as they sometimes distribute the surplus yield from their activities to local pasture committees as bribes.

While decentralization of pasture authority can cause tension for herders moving across districts, placing control purely in the hands of the central government is not a universal fix. As Jeanne Féaux de la Croix, an anthropologist at the University of Tübingen, explained to GlacierHub, local communities have consistently handled disputes and created their own agreements regarding pasture use over the years. This suggests that maintaining autonomy on the local level while better integrating local concerns may be important to easing pasture access disputes. This is evident when considering the role of the central government in pasture issues.

The central government is involved in both pasture access issues and pasture degradation, a complicated and debated ecological issue in Kyrgyzstan. Naryn, like most of rural Kyrgyzstan, is not very populated, and thus the central government does not prioritize investment in the region’s agricultural sector. Following independence from the Soviet Union, maintenance of roads and bridges that allow herders to reach remote pastures declined. Along with insufficient infrastructure, proper mechanisms for monitoring pasture quality have not been established, which has led to a lack of robust data on pasture health.

For some environmental advocates, the declining quality of pastures is evident, despite the dearth of formal data. Baktygul Chynybaeva, a journalist based in the capital city of Bishkek, spoke with GlacierHub about the ecological concerns of overgrazing, which she said is a main culprit of declining pasture quality.

Chynybaeva described how grasses are sparse, leading some herders to buy fodder from other regions to have enough to feed their livestock. For those who still rely on pasture, many animals are not getting enough nutrients or have even been known to eat harmful plants instead of grasses, causing them to become ill. Animal health is a concern for herders, many of whom now rely heavily on antibiotics. In turn, as Chynybaeva described, this shift raises concerns about the residents consuming these animal products.

But while some see pasture degradation as a pressing matter, there are varying perspectives on the quality of the land from those who actually graze animals. Many herders prioritize other livestock-raising needs, such as accessing remote, high pastures. Pastures closer to villages are coveted by herders and are typically the ones suffering from overgrazing, while remote pastures are underutilized, lush with high quality grasses, and well-supplied with water from glacier melt. However, because reaching these lands requires expensive and laborious journeys on poor quality roads, many herders find these pastures too difficult to use.

Thus, central government investment in rural infrastructure may be an important way to ease stress among herders, according to Mestre. By repairing roads and bridges and making it easier to access underutilized remote pastures, not only can livestock herders benefit from access to high-quality land, but concerns about overgrazing in pastures near villages can be alleviated.

Local peoples’ ecological knowledge can help assess the quality of the land and determine other needs for those who raise livestock. Experts emphasize the importance of properly integrating community concerns in the process of creating pasture use rules. Pastoralism need not be blamed for pasture degradation, and livestock herders’ more pressing concerns outside pasture health—such as access to remote lands—can be addressed as well.

“There are multiple perspectives about the state of the land, about the level of degradation, about what constitutes good pasture,” Marc Foggin, a conservation biologist at the University of British Columbia and director at Plateau Perspectives, told GlacierHub in an interview. “Most high level government views have focused for the most part on largely external ‘specialist knowledge,’ [thereby] excluding insights from local community members, including pastoralists themselves.”

A skinny river winds through a deep valley surrounded by brown grassy slopes
A river flows through a valley in the Tien Shan Mountains, one of the prominent mountain ranges in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Thomas Depenbusch (Depi) via Wikimedia Commons

Kyrgyzstan is also disproportionately impacted by climate change, which worsens the environmental stresses felt by herders and residents throughout the country. Glaciers in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan are melting at a rapid pace and have decreased in size by 20 percent in the past 50 years. Glaciers melting faster and earlier in the year as temperatures get warmer exacerbates water access issues for farmers and can have profound long-term impacts on agriculture. This has ramifications for pasture health as well, and thus broader concerns with ecosystems in Central Asia have consequences for livestock herders.

The pastoralist way of life in Kyrgyzstan is under strain by many forces. As the agricultural sector suffers due to lack of pasture access, government neglect, and climate change, many young people from Naryn are moving to urban centers, especially Bishkek, to seek new forms of employment.

The tensions between livestock herders in Naryn in June were no isolated incident. If the number of livestock in Kyrgyzstan continues to grow every year while local communities are marginalized, conflicts are likely to increase. It remains to be seen whether the central government can work in tandem with local peoples’ robust traditions of governance and deep knowledge of pasture conditions to foster peace and sustainability.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that pasture borders had been changing since independence in 1991. Borders between pastures have actually been evolving since before then, during the Soviet period.

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