(Re)settlement of Pastoralists – Could massive State input prove a successful example?

One quarter of Mongolia’s population is living in shanty towns, as reported by the Guardian. As a consequence of encroaching desertification, Mongolian herders have been forced into these shanty towns with few (if no) options for alternative livelihoods. Are there lessons to be learned from China’s resettlement policy, where the State in many cases provides free housing, health care, education and veterinary care? A few reflections from InWEnT’s Regional Workshop- Pastoralism and Rangeland Management in Mountain Areas in the context of Climate and Global Change held last July in Tajikistan and China.

Traveling along an ancient route of the Silk Road, our field trip followed an appropriate path from an agro-pastoral region, to high mountain pastureland to the final destination of an oasis in Kashgar. 

Tajikistan has recently seen a political and economic transformation from a planned economy to common property privatization. As a consequence, pasture management currently suffers from a lack of state support. Contrarily, Xinjiang prefecture in China is experiencing a transformation from a semi-nomadic pasture management regime to a government led re-settlement plan.

These polarized transformations bring into question how each of the respective regimes contributes to the resilience of pastoral communities. The workshop field trip revealed two extremes; first, in the Tajik model which is still suffering from the sudden withdrawal of external inputs with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the distribution and status of pastureland remains unclear due to the absence of any laws on user rights. In contrast, the re-settlement scheme of Xinjiang, which is initiated, controlled and monitored by the State, boasts a strongly regulated central management regime, not unlike the Soviet system in Tajikistan 1970s and 1980s.

The challenge thus becomes how to balance state and community influence, and to identify which stakeholders are most suitable to manage an increasingly complex natural resource management system. The land tenure issue for example in the three regions of interest requires contextual responses from different stakeholders. In Tajikistan, the issue of land tenure is unresolved but the government is attempting to pass a law of usage right. Pakistani participants felt that land tenure must be private in order for users to have a sense of ownership. Contrarily, the Chinese model is based on the belief that only if the government owns the land will they be accountable for the sustainable management of the corresponding resources.

Situated in similar ecological zones, political circumstance has formed the basis for divergent pasture management regimes in Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. While Tajik pastoralists suffer from severe isolation and a lack of access to the market; Chinese pastoralists have become relatively successful entrepreneurs with the aid of intermediaries, the establishment of cooperatives, and a marketing platform in which livestock products are branded.  Globalization and modernization have hindered the further growth of pastoralism in Pakistan, where education and media encourage the younger generations to seek professional degrees in urban centres. Whereas, globalization in Xinjiang can act as an impetus to development.  Chinese government officials explained that through improved technology and expertise, Xinjiang enhances its competitive edge in order for pastoralism to survive.

Winter fodder appears to be a common bottleneck in all three regions, with irrigated fodder crops as one management response to this limiting factor. In the context of a changing climate, we can expect water resources in the Pamir and Hindu-Kush, Karakoram mountain regions to increase in the short term and decrease in the long term. Irrigation management should therefore be flexible enough to adapt to drastic changes in water availability.

The Tajik system has suffered from a drastic cut of inputs with extremely limited financial and/or legislative support from the State.  Despite collection of a land tax, the government is unable to provide adequate protection for rangelands. Most notably, the main source of fuel in the Tajik Pamirs is shrubbery, which acts as an important soil stabilizer. The uprooting of the majority of these sub-alpine shrubs, results in expansive desertification.  As Tajikistan undergoes a transition process from a planned economy to private ownership, pastoralists who were given livestock after the collapse of the Soviet Union suffer from a lack of know-how and difficulty reaching remote pastures, leading to the more severe degradation of winter pastures. Compounding this problem, the drastic outflow of labour caused by remittances reduces the potential for productive agriculture.

In Xinjiang, a government-led intensification scheme has been deemed as the appropriate response to increase fodder availability and improve animal health while improving the livelihoods of rural mountainous populations. In the last twenty years, 200 million farmers have moved to urban areas and are no longer self-sufficient.  Farmers have increased their incomes by two-thirds as a result of income from non-farm activities; and the government aims to provide pastoralists with the same opportunities. As one Chinese official commented on the resettlement scheme, “progress in lifestyle…not change in lifestyle.” 

Pastoralists in Xinjiang province have traditionally adapted to four distinct seasons through migration; moving hundreds of kilometers each year to reach remote summer pastures. Livestock numbers in Xinjiang have increased as a function of increasing production capacity of summer pastures, while it is commonly believed that winter and spring fodder is the main limiting factor to even greater growth. The importance of pastoralism in Xinjiang is exemplified by its 720 million ha of useable pastureland, and its share of 30 percent of Xinjiang’s total GDP of 28.9 billion yen. Of the useable pastureland, up to 30 percent is degraded, the majority of which is spring and autumn desert-steppe [1]. Chinese government authorities have identified three major problems with the current pastoral system. First, the quantity and quality of pasture land is decreasing; second, providing essential social services to a nomadic population is challenging; and third, the harsh geological and environmental conditions of Xinjiang province results in a lack of physical infrastructure in remote mountain areas. The National Chinese government has initiated a number of interventions to meet these shortcomings and to mitigate pressure on rangelands.  In the 1980s, the government proposed a policy to replace high mountain pastoralism with agro-pastoralism. Through fencing and rehabilitation (including sowing by airplanes), pest control and controlled removal of non-edible biomass, the policy was effective to a certain extent in mitigation, but did not succeed in providing basic social infrastructure to pastoralists. This limitation led the government to initiate the resettlement programme with the view to protect natural pastures and to improve the livelihoods of high mountain pastoralists through their resettlement in lowlands. Chinese authorities explained that a number of preconditions should be met prior to resettlement: pastoralists must be willing to resettle; the pastoral lifestyle should be respected and altered as little as possible; and the efficiency of the economy should be improved through reduced inputs and greater outputs. It should be emphasized that the resettlement programme does not mean to abandon the pastoral way of life, but rather, it encourages a shift from 4-season nomadism to 2- season nomadism. Pastoralists will still graze their animals in the high pastures in summer and autumn, but will settle in the valley in the winter and spring, where fodder and veterinary care is provided for the animals and pastoralists have access to social services such as schools and health centres. Communities contribute to the resettlement process in varying degrees depending on their geographical location and social status. In the poorest areas, communities are only responsible to produce livestock products. Alternatively, in richer areas, the expenses for resettlement are divided among the community, the national and the regional governments.

The assets of the resettlement programme have been clearly outlined by Chinese authorities: improved productivity, concentrated management of resources, social benefits, reduced pressure on natural pastures and even carbon sequestration. Nonetheless, there are also valid concerns and limitations to the programme. During initial trials, many herders left the settlements because they did not have the necessary knowledge or skills to adapt to a semi-nomadic way of life. The government must provide training to pastoralists on adaptive methods to raise livestock in communal sheds and provide regular veterinary care. Delegates from Central Asia compared the resettlement programme to the Soviet resettlement strategy of the 1970s and 1980s, which ultimately failed because of a strong dependence on external inputs from a central source. International delegates were primarily concerned with the loss of indigenous knowledge and culture of pastoralists. As one delegate from Pakistan explained, “Pastoralism in not a management plan; rather, it is a way of life.” Furthermore, the resettlement programme is thought to increase the reliance on the central government. Traditionally, the pastoralists of societies in Central Asia have management to remain politically independent. One can look to the Kyrgyz of the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan as a case in point. Through the provision of basic services such as education and health care, the Han Chinese government may be able to gain control over a fringe population comprised primarily of an ethnic minority group.

During the field trip, we visited the largest resettlement programme in Xinjiang province. With the capacity to accommodate 455 households, the settlement Bulunkul, has the capacity to house one third of the total pastoral population of the area.Each housing unit is 18 sq metres large, with three bedrooms, one kitchen, one bathroom and central gas heating. The total government investment per unit is RMB 160,000 or approximately USD 24,000. Six veterinarians will be provided for the 455 households, 300 kg of grass and 30 kg of fodder will be provided for each head of small livestock.  During the winter and spring, livestock will be kept in a large common shed as an annex to the compound.Herders will move into the settlement free of charge, and are only responsible to produce livestock products (no quotas assigned) and pay utility costs. The first 110 households will move in October 2010. Conference participants were concerned that the promotion of a sedentary lifestyle will decrease resilience to external economic, political and ecological shock. Mobility is a recognized rangeland management practice, as it allows herders to reach remote pastures and decrease the incidence of overgrazing.  The Chinese Director of Animal Husbandry explained that the resettlement programme actually encouraged mobility to summer pastures, and would in fact provide transportation to herder to their summer pastures, contributing to their well-being in harsh mountain conditions. Another concern raised by conference participants, was the opportunity for a large-scale disaster incurred through the concentration of pastoralists and their livestock. For example, should an epidemic such as foot and mouth disease break out in the area, the results of keeping thousands of livestock in a common area could be devastating. Chinese authorities counter this argument with the logic that with proper and focused veterinary care, the incidence of disease should decrease drastically. A social concern raised was the possibility that with improved education and opportunities, pastoralism will be abandoned as a source of income by future generations.

[1] Steppe in China is defined as 5 plants/m2.


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