“With Our Own Hands” arriving home

Latofat, a school principle in the most remote valley of the Pamir mountains sometimes wondered if the two foreigners who 4 years showed up at her door unannounced saying they were collecting recipes about Pamiri food would ever return. She was also a bit skeptical about whether there would ever be a book. When she heard on Monday that we were returning to Siponj village, with books in tow, that very day, she said she simply could not wait to see the book.

With Our Own Hands: A celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” has arrived back in the Pamirs, and 1500 copies have been started be distributed to every community in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs. The book began as a simple recipe book, to fulfill a promise to a grandmother and to document the rich unwritten knowledge about the unique agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. Over the course of 5 years, the book became much more. Nearly 700 pages of English, Tajik and Dari text and many photographs, describe the domestication of the mountains, the influence of the silk road, the importance of wild food, the resilience of transhumance and bring into sharp focus conflicting futures of the region.

5000 kg of book traveled from the Netherlands over land to Tajikistan. They arrived in Dushanbe two days before our own arrival last week. Here, Frederik and I are sitting on the 5 tons of book in storage at the Ismaili centre in Dushanbe.

While this felt like a small victory in itself, the next challenge was to get the books in a Kamaz for the multiple day trip to Khorog over precarious mountain passes. In the meantime, we took off in a taxi-jeep with 20 books on top of the car.

book4Latofat is the Principle of the school in Siponj village in Bartang Valley. The village is often completely isolated in the winter months when snow closes-in the valley. Perhaps because of this isolation, the valley maintains a ‘pure’ Pamiri language and is home to some of the strongest traditions in the Pamirs. The school in Siponj celebrates an annual national food day, where students ask their grandparents and elders how to make traditional foods from the unique agriculture all around them. 4 years ago, we ate many different dishes, like Baht, Khomnigul, and Boj.  We took some photos of the beautiful and proud children, and with those, we conclude the book. This day brought us a lot of hope – that food, tradition and knowledge have a place not just in preserving the past, but also in imagining the future of the Pamirs. Naturally, we decided to return to this village first.

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Why the title, “With Our Own Hands”? First is because the Pamirs would be a desolate wilderness, the way Sir Francis Younghusband described it to the Royal Geographical society in 1892. People make life-giving soil with their own hands. One thing that was never in question was the title of the book.

But another reason became much more apparent as we saw people react to the book. People were reacting to the knowledge that cannot be spoken, but is expressed through ‘doing’, in their own hands. Bobbi, who drove us to Siponj, admitted to us that he thought this was an impressive volume ‘about’ the Pamirs, but didn’t really know what it was all about. He spent the next few days, while waiting for us, going through it page by page, and then told us that this was a great service to the Pamiri people – it captured invisible knowledge.

book6

He asked, how is it possible that two foreigners wrote this book? Why was it not Pamiris?

We often asked ourselves this question while writing the book – why us?

First, it was not just us. It was supported enormously by a group of dedicated Pamiri scientists who collected recipes, verified information and made all the connections for us. And the knowledge of course, is entirely from the Pamirs. All we did was pull it together.

The other answers are maybe more complex. Because we are outsiders, so we have the luxury and distance to observe.

And we didn’t only do it for the Pamirs. We also did it for ourselves. I grew all up all over the place – the Pamirs are as much home to me as the other places I have spent meaningful time. The pamirs are an intensely special place. Yes, intensely. One cannot visit the Pamirs without being overwhelmed by the grandeur of the mountains, the blue of the sky, the force of the rivers… the diversity of seeds, language and culture. From a purely functional perspective, we will need the seeds in the Pamirs as the climate continues to change for human prosperity. But more importantly, I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in a world where the Pamirs exist.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

What next?

The books arrived in Khorog by Kamaz on Thursday. I was already on my way to Dushanbe by car. Frederik and a Dutch film maker were there to capture it! Supposedly a line human chain of 30 people formed from the back of the Kamaz to a basement where 5,000 kg of books were passed from hand to hand.

Everyone who has seen the book, whether in the police, the bus stop or bazaar, has immediately asked how to get one. The Mountains Societies Development Support Programme will help distribute them to every community, to ensure that at least one copy is accessible in a public space.

The book should live, it is not a monument set in stone. Already we have received critiques: mistakes in spelling, which differs from valley to valley based on pronunciation; differences in recipes from grandmother to grandmother, village to village and certainly valley to valley; and discontent about showing some of the less appealing sides of the Pamirs (like the opium addiction especially on the Afghan side). We would love to find a way to facilitate the making of the book into a live forum for discussion, to capture these differences and nuances – to open up a space for imaginings.

Advertisements

Seeds and Ideas: Food as a method in development practice

Where do ideas come from? is the fundamental question we address in this ‘Thought for Food’ publication by Hivos and Oxfam. We explore how new ideas that exist outside the mainstream discussions about development can be brought into its narrative and influence its course. And how food in general, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, can help facilitate this process.

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Download here: https://hivos.org/sites/default/files/seeds_and_ideas-food_as_a_method_in_development_practice.pdf

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Haider & van Oudenhoven 2015.

You can download the pdf here. We hope it’s of interest! And here’s a short summary

1. How do endogenous ideas emerge?

Drawing from an exchange between Nietzsche and Foucault, we argue that norms, behaviours, actions and ideas become established when the serve a certain purpose, when they are useful. The purpose, and therefore the utility, lies in the eye of the beholder. In a development context, problems are defined by external agencies and responses designed as one-liners: poverty alleviation, market development, combatting malnutrition. From this perspective, the utility of field lies in its productive function (to combat malnutrition for example). To a local cook and farmer, the utility of the field is broader still. We draw on the example of lashak mack (rye pea field), and the soup  that is made of it in the Pamir Mountains.

To the Pamiri cook and farmer, the function of lashak-makh is broader still. They use the harvest from these fields to make a flour called hazorza, which means ‘mix of a thousand’. The crops are not separated, but harvested and milled together, and the hazorza flour is used to make bread or a nutritious noodle soup called osh, which is rich in protein and energy and has a cooling quality when working the fields in summer. Many kinds of osh exist, made with different mixed flours that come from different combinations of crops grown at different altitudes, and many songs and poems are recited about Osh. The soup and the cultivation system are interlinked; the agronomic utility of the cultivation system is connected to the nutritional and cultural utility of hazorza and osh, and strengthened by it.

Many (agri)cultural norms and practices have functions that are not readily apparent. Is it possible to know which knowledge, practice or idea that seems irrelevant now will be useful at some future point in time? And if it is possible, who are the people to decide on what practices should remain and which ones could go? Who decides on change?

We bring in a few more examples of how introduced seed varieties can become ends in and of themselves, especially when so much scientific legitimacy stands behind the improved varieties. To move the locus of power from outside organisations to people and communities who receive development assistance means, firstly, to shift the responsibility of who defines problems and solutions to those very people and communities. The ‘inevitable gap’ becomes less inevitable when the perspective on development is derived more from within, becomes more endogenous. Food may be one way to achieve this.

Food as a Method Part 1: Food is intimate and unimposing, it is a common vocabulary and it is simple but not simplistic.

During the course of our work in the Pamirs, ‘food’ proved to be a useful tool to break down or at least circumvent power relationships and help gain a deeper understanding of this place and its culture. With ‘food’ we simply mean the act of cultivating and preparing food, of eating together and speaking and thinking about it. But the experience of working on a book by no means proves that this tool would necessarily be useful in other hands or for the exploration of other questions in different cultures. Would it be something that is useful for development practitioners for their work in agricultural communities? Would redefining and redirecting development efforts around food (in its broadest sense) be meaningful? We will explore a number of qualities of food that suggest it might.

2. In autonomous spaces, where do ideas come from?

Through listening and trying to learn these skills from farmers, mothers and shepherds, our conversations with them created a space where we could speak as equals. Where power relations, if not absent, were less apparent than if we had been there as researchers or development workers. This, we felt, was a space far away from the ‘problems and solutions’ defined by the outside world of development, a relatively endogenous space in which people could speak freely and ideas could emerge. And often they did.

At times, however, we were struck by people’s seeming lack of endogenous ideas about their future; a lack of initiative in changing things that weren’t working, or protecting things people were proud of. Where were those ideas and where had the energy gone? A strange contradiction in a conversation with a wealthy shepherd in the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan suggested we ought to look at power in yet a different, more subtle way.

Food as a Method Part 2: to excavate memories and inspire ideas. Food is evocative, tangible, requires action and is a vessel of values fundamental to identify.

Food is a vessel of many things. It is not by accident that preparing it evokes memories and ideas that are otherwise buried. Using food as a method helps create a space in which novel ideas emerge and can be expressed, and where old ideas can be excavated, dusted off and become part of an endogenous perspective on development. The question that remains is how, once ‘small’ local ideas emerge, they can take root and thrive alongside or in competition with more powerful ones.

3. How do ideas take root?

To cook food with people and to eat together from a shared dish allows us to understand ideas and solutions for rural development practice as springing from the relationship between people, their communities and their landscape. Just as plants and animals are part of an ecological system, and seeds need to be understood in the agricultural system of which they are a part, ideas about food and the development of agricultural landscapes need to be understood in relation to, and as a result of, other ideas and the people who carry them. This way of understanding how ideas interact has been called an ‘ecology of ideas’ (Bateson, 1972).

In such as an ecology, as an idea becomes established, it increasingly connects to other ideas until, eventually, the idea becomes crucial to the survival of the system as a whole. Throughout this paper we have discussed some of the ideas that Pamiri farmers shared with us about their future: raising their children to maintain a connection to their land and traditional livelihoods, growing grains and pulses together in lashak-makh fields, using food and local plants for medicine. In other words seeking and adopting a type of development that does not destroy important local and traditional values. But if these ideas find no soil, no social or institutional network into which they can be incorporated and nourished, they cannot flourish and survive. Ideas are not singular entities and cannot exist as such; they need a support structure, or an ecology of which they become a part.

The reason that, viewed from the perspective of an ‘ecology of ideas’, food has such evocative power, and that phrasing ideas in the language of food may help them spread and gain relevance, is that food touches on most elements that make up daily life: health, livelihood, agriculture, science, spirituality, trade. The more such linkages are allowed to persist, the more these elements remain seen as integral parts of the food system, and the greater the power of food to help new ideas connect to an existing ecology and take root.

3. IMG_4233

Lashak-makh. A field of rye, barley, pea, grass pea, lentil and faba bean. A mess, traditional ecological knowledge, or something else? Photo by F. van Oudenhoven.

Yet unfortunately this is not usually the way development programmes introduce their ideas (or their seeds). The way in which the organisations and donors behind these programmes are organised requires that the building blocks of human life be compartmentalised into sectors that can be managed within the framework of projects: productivity, income generation, health, culture, thereby severing the same linkages that make food such a holistic and overarching concept. Imagine how an improved seed variety, designed for monoculture, would fare in the colourful chaos of a field of lashak-makh? It would not survive its difficult soils without a substantial dose of fertiliser, or competition from other plants without the use of herbicides. The agricultural system must change if the newly introduced seed is to succeed; it must be compartmentalised. And so the seed becomes divorced from the soil and the traditional practices that connect farming and communities, such as seed saving and selection. It will no longer have its place in prayer, in food and in social networks of exchange—the very things that give a local seed its relevance and that enable it to adapt to changes in its environment and culture.

The same risk exists for ideas. Let’s return one last time to the dichotomy between ideas as singular monuments and ideas as networks and interactions. Even though external ideas are part of networks as much as local ideas are, we have in this paper pictured them as more ‘monumental,’ as one-liner solutions to problems whose conception often occurred elsewhere. In many ways they are more monumental—and they take root as a plant’s taproot might: central, singular, and straight. In being monumental and more rigid, they are less able to adapt to a new home, and less sensitive to it.

In contrast, what we have called endogenous, or local ideas, are the ideas that spring from everyday processes of innovation and learning; the way a farmer learns when working her fields. Having no one source or origin, and, perhaps, also no fixed goal or direction, they evolve and adapt when faced with something unknown, drawing on a reservoir of related ideas, whether prayer, technical knowledge or folklore.

We do not argue that all ‘small’ local ideas are good and all external ‘big’ ideas are bad. Both are needed, but they need to be able to interact on a more equal level. It is in facilitating such interactions, through engagement and experimentation, through the collective interrogation of ideas, and through being modest about introduced ideas and judging them against the wisdom of ancestral knowledge present in the places where they work, that we argue development organisations have a very positive role to play.

What would you do with this rock?

We recently had a ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ Marathon, where we spent a day learning about each others’ research. It was an incredible day, at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm. Our instruction was to NOT use powerpoint. So we had role plays, songs and videos… and our group, the Landscapes Theme (because our centre is based around cross-cutting research themes) presented objects. Mine was a rock. And here is my 1 minute blurb:

What would you do with this rock? What productive function would this rock have to you?

In the high desert steppe Pamir mountains of Central Asia,  people make soil from rocks. With their own hands, they break the rocks with hammers, dynamite or other, bigger rocks, until they can throw them off their land and build a stone wall with them.  They then flood this field, once, twice, three times, usually over three seasons with the silt-laden water of the Amu Darya. After three years, they may have a mulch that is just good enough to grow some fruit trees, or if the silty flood is particularly rich, perhaps even some grains.

This landscape, is barren, difficult and desolate. One might even ask why anyone decided to live here. Increasing population and severe food production restrictions indeed beg the question why anyone still lives here at all. And it’s true, living here is difficult. But the life that does grow, is unique and astoundingly resilient. Drought resistant crop varieties, endemic fruit varieties prosper in micro-niches and the food tastes so much better.

Image

Afghan farmer in the Wakhan Corridor clearing his land of large rocks. 3 seasons from now he may use this field of rocky mulch to grow fruit trees, or even grains. August 2011 (r) Jamila Haider

A scientist might look at this landscape and see only limits that must be overcome with technocratic solutions. But let’s take for a moment the perspective of the people who live in this valley; who have co-evolved with this landscape for thousands of years. This spirit and courage is ever present in the Afghan farmers who work hard on their land, as in this photo here where rocks are cleared before being smashed to mulch.

Just on the other side of the river, this spirit of ingenuity has been all but lost. Replaced by modernization schemes, Tajik farmers will tell us that they have forgotten how to work the land.

Monumental efforts have been made to overcome these barriers, first the Soviets, and then development organisations have tried: fertilizer inputs, massive irrigation schemes, riparian stabilization, improved crop varieties.

But most do not work. The fields are too high, the soil to difficult. People are incredibly poor with some of the worst human well-being indicators in the world. Traditional development has failed. Efforts to increase food production have in fact done the opposite. Improved wheat varieties have failed after 1 or 2 seasons, depleting the soils which cannot fallow, or not withstanding drought. These interventions have done little more than create new traps, dependency on a state (the Soviets were for a while flying in fodder), or development organizations introducing seeds that requires fertilizers. How can we regain the resilience of this landscape based on the ingenuity of the farmers and break the dependency trap?

What is a Failed State?

The Failed State. A concept I started to look at in the context of global sustainability at the the annual Balaton Group Meeting two months ago. The Balaton Group is an international group of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability. The topic of this years meeting was “Successful Societies” and I was asked to present on the “How to Create a Successful Society from a Failed State.” What an easy topic! I felt a little bit like Miss <Insert-Country-Here> asking for World Peace.

I didn’t know much about Failed States, other than having lived in one, so had some reading to do. The Earth Policy Institute recently released a new book “The World on Edge” by Lester Brown, which includes  a Chapter on how to rescue failed states and recognizes a shift away from isolated military action to combat the root causes of State Failure.

What are the characteristics of state failure? German sociologist, Max Weber describes a failed state as one which “fails to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders.” Noam Chomsky included in the definition a state which “fails to provide security for the population, to guarantee the rights at home or abroad, or to maintain function of democratic states.” The Fund for Peace& Foreign Policy has created an index system that quantifies a dozen aspects of state failure:
1. Physical control of its territory and erosion of legitimate state authority to make collective decisions
2. Inability to provide reasonable public services
3. Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community
4. Extensive corruption and criminal behavior
5. Inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support
6. Large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population
7. Sharp economic decline
8. Group-based inequality
9. Institutionalized persecution or discrimination
10. Severe demographic pressures
11. Brain drain
12. Environmental decay

Still, this list of indicators contrasts to indicators of successful societies: education, health indicators and overall “well-being.” How is it that visions of success and failure have become so disconnected? Is it time to re-think what a Failed State is, and what the drivers of failed or successful societies are? The blurry dichotomy between the two is illustrated through a comparative case of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In Badakhshan province, the two countries share a watershed which is inhabitated by Pamiri people with a common language, religion and culture, separated only by the Amu Darya River and 70 years of a divergent development path. Tajik Badakhshan benefited from Soviet development of infrastructure, education (99.5% overall literacy rate), health care system and access to markets. In stark contrast just across the river, Afghans still walk up to 12 days along donkey trails to the nearest market, and have severely limited access to healthcare (maternal mortality is highest at the world, at 6,507 deaths/ 100,000 births) and education (18% and 36% literacy rates for women and men respectively).

Flying over border between Tajikistan (left) and Afghanistan (right). June 2009

Despite these stark contrasts in development and traditional indicators of success, many Tajiks will say that Afghans are better off, because their livelihoods are independent of external inputs, and they are not affected by global price fluctuations. So success, or failure, depends not only on the scale of analysis, but also on who you talk to. Identifying the systemic role of State Failure requires a break away from the dichotomy presented by these indicators, and asks us to question what are the processes that provide resilience in as system ridden with political rigidity, corruption, and violence.

There are examples of “success”, even within Failed States, which need to be scaled up. One approach to reduce the global risk of failed states may be to identify sources of resilience at the local scale, which may or may not align with conventional indicators of success. Resilience of what to what?

Harvest in Vanj, Tajikistan. Photo by Teo Kaye

Harvest in Jomarj, Afghanistan. Photo by Teo Kaye.

Our new economy (22 years ago); and a look to the future through food

“There is a principle specific to environmental ecology which states that everything is possible–the worst catastrophes, or the smoothest developments.”

I just returned from a self-imposed ‘writing recluse’ with my co-author for the little book Bo dastoni khud – With our hands: A book of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs.  There, in a lovely Swedish summerhouse on the Baltic Sea, I found the space to read a few long- overdue classics– including The Three Ecologies, by Guattari.

Guattari wrote this paper in 1989. This week, as I found myself in tightening thought circles writing about the apparent ingenuity gap of the Pamir people after the fall of the Soviet Union, I found myself in an even tighter circle thinking that Guattari wrote these words when I was two years old. And well, it was one of those slightly disconcerting moments where I was reminded that I’ve been spending my entire life trying to articulate thoughts which have already been succinctly and firmly stated before I could even speak.

Many of the discussions we have on the recession and economic growth are spent questioning alternative growth mechanisms within the current economic paradigm when Guattari stated 22 years ago that we should use “our expanded understanding of the whole range of ecological components to set in place new systems of value.” Guattari told us that Capitalism could be challenged, or at least made to incorporate methods of valorization based on existential production. He called for an active offensive, rather than a mere defence of nature. A future in which we fashion ethics appropriate to a future which is at once fascinating and terrifying. (Thank you to David Barry and others, who have recently opened a socially equitable, environmental community bank (E3 bank in the US) against all odds.)

Guattari blames much of the inaction on reductionism that necessarily accompanies the privileging of information which supplants story-telling. So, now, I am going on a bit of limb from my otherwise overly pragmatic self, and am writing a book based foremost on story-telling through which we hope to detract from the abstract, and focus on a memory with a strong sense of self and to form an identity to form a base from which to look forward to the future. The culture of food is a link from the past to the present and beyond. The question is how to maintain that culture—that sense of Pamiri-self—and move forwards. We hope our book creates such a bridge. To invoke memories of the past, record the present, and help provide a rich context for the future.

The question I’m currently tangled up in, is what the future of this region looks like to Pamiris? And what is their ability  to imagine the future, because perhaps even more severely than most, their memories have been eroded by history. In a time of transforming lifestyles and landscapes, our book presents food as a powerful lens through which to invoke visions of the future rooted in memories.

In a recent post in the Resilience Science Blog a quote from Andreas Hussyen’s book states

“At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.”

Over the coming weeks, and months, I’ll be posting recipes, stories and photos here to give a taste of the coming book!

(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.


And when I close my eyes, the contours of the mountains are still imprinted on my eyelids.

August 8, 2009.
Sitting on a large rock at the edge of the bluest lake in the world, in between villages number 1 and 2 in Geizev, I am utterly (but maybe not completely) happy. Allison and I came down to the lake for a swim, but the sun has set behind the mountains and the water is about 2 degrees C, so there’s no way we’re going in. We promise ourselves that we will go tomorrow…
We left Khorog this morning at 8:30 (there was a honey-fair at the market, and a friend of ours picked up a jar for us). We took a Mashutka to Rushan and then up the Bartang valley (stopping in the driver’s village for some small plum-like things) until we came to a foot-suspension bridge. The bridge, like all infrastructure in Tajikistan, was rather sturdy (especially compared to rural Mada). From the bridge, we hiked up an impressive valley, climbing to 2500m (which isn’t that much, since we probably started at 2000m. The path was lovely, but our packs were heavy, probably about 45 lbs each. So we took it easy and took a few breaks—one at a cherry tree where we met a nice man who knew a couple of our ex-pat friends. So after eating about half a kilo of cherries, which my stomach is now paying for, we set back on our way. After 2 ½ hours in the grueling heat, we made it to the first village of Geisev, where we had chai, bread and jam, sugar coated peanuts and of course cookies in the Tapchan. After our second snack, we decided to continue to the second village with the ‘cherry-man’ as our guide. At the second village, he found us the perfect campsite, right beside the river at the point where the crystal blue water surrounding trees resembling mangroves in their manner of growth, turns into a rambling stream, then into a raging river in a small canyon before finally becoming the lake at which I am sitting.
The village in which we are staying has two humble homestays, eco-tourism projects of MSDSP. The guest house in which we will have dinner is a traditional Pamiri home with a solar powered light bulb and a number of Pamiri mattresses. There is also a shower close to our tent. A hose runs along the field to a green and white striped vestibule, where the hose then runs into an old water bottle, which has holes punctured in the bottom to create a shower…Awesome! The best part is that the water is heated by the same solar panel on the roof of the Homestay. We felt slightly rude and ungrateful to sleep in our tent, but we just really wanted to get some use out of our new baby!

%d bloggers like this: