Mobile Pastoralism … in Colonial Russian Empire
When the Russian Empire formally annexed Central Asia (1850 – 1876), the steppe territories were sparsely populated with few settled communities. Nomadic pastoralist tribes migrated horizontally and vertically, ascending into higher seasonal pastures during the warmest months, and to lower altitudes in the coolest. They camped in circular tents fashioned from felted wool and roamed hundreds of miles with their livestock herds, beyond the borders of present-day Kazakhstan and China. Though the southern Fergana Valley was a hub of Islamic culture, northern tribes mostly followed Tengriism, a shamanist-influenced, Central Asian animist faith that revered the sky and the earth as dual deities, and looked to the natural world for hidden messages from the beyond.
Though there is a danger in romanticizing the nomadic way of life, harshened by extreme temperatures and rough terrain, it was, from an ecological point of view more sustainable than most sedentary communities. Central Asian nomads saw nature as a parent, or as a partner, rather than something they could subordinate. However Russian experts and authorities tried to win the local population with agricultural schools that convinced mobile people to use intensive soil techniques rather than extensive use of the land
… in Soviet Central Asia
In 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution ended Czarist rule, Central Asia passed to a new ideological regime. The then starting Sovietisation was an intellectual colonization. Traditional clan leaders were derided as bourgeois. Collective farms, powered by husbandry techniques imported from Europe or Russia, supplanted nomadic herding. Since the beginning of the Soviet Union traditional mobile pastoralism was conceived as backward. Pastoralists were accused to have a lack of understanding of modern effective economies. Several campaigns to sedentarise mobile herders lead to a massive migration of rich pastoral families in the 1920ies to China, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere. Famine followed after a harsh winter in 1930-31 and ended up in a tragedy that is commemorated as genocide since then in many families but also got attention after the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 by local agents of nation building. Within the sprawling new economy (NEP) in the 192ies all property like yurts and cattle was confiscated. With 7 decades of Sovietisation traditional knowledge was almost completely replaced in all
The region’s practices of mobile pastoralism took a backseat to Soviet progress. Authorities kept a tight watch on agricultural production and outsourced livestock duties to salaried herders. The steppe became one of the largest meat and wool producers in the Soviet Union and the number of sheep in the country grew from 1940 to the late 1980s by 400 %. The republics held to firm schedules.
… and the new Central Asian Nomadic States
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asia was the site of a drama. Deprived of state oversight and generations removed from traditional techniques, Central Asian herding communities struggled. Water use increased by half while the crop yield plummeted. Even today, 25 years later, a knowledge gap remains — with lasting ecological impact. The low yield of crops were 100 percent human caused. Many just didn’t follow agriculture techniques. Peasants didn’t seed in time. They didn’t water in time. By cutting the trees and over-grazing grasslands many were hastening the process of climate change.
On the other hand numerous movies on the heroic past of the nomadic civilisations in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were widely received by the audiences and use for nation building processes.
Climate Change since 1960ies
The impacts of rising temperatures — a 0.13 degree Celsius increase per year in Central Asia over the last two decades, according to the United Nations Development Program — have intensified thanks to regional activity. Hillsides, stripped of trees for logging and pelted by out-of-season rains, now suffer landslides. The landslide risk is made worse by pasture misuse: Overgrazing livestock have stripped the grasslands, which span 45 percent of the country. Soviet authorities regulated pasture field rotation, but independent herders now stick closer to their villages. And they’ve also lost the nomadic herding patterns: rather than heading up and down the mountains with the season, they mostly bring their flocks to feed along thronged roadsides and venture to the highlands only in summer.
These ecological disasters have also coincided with the disappearance of 20 percent of the glaciers in some areas of the Pamir and Tian Shan mountain range, Central Asia’s water towers. In other parts of the world, receding glaciers serve as concerning, but distant shorthand for a planet in peril. In a country like Kyrgyzstan with over 5,000 glaciers under threat, it is a frightening everyday reality. Along with changes to the landscape, weather disruptions have alarmed herders and farmers. There isn’t a way to change the weather back. But traditional ecological knowledge could help communities forestall, or at least foresee, graver threats.
Agriculture and Nomadism in times of Climate Change
Climate change trends and projections in Central Asia have important implications for pastures, crops and agro-pastoral livelihoods. Moreover, climate change poses a greater threat to sedentary agriculture, as intensive land use generally suffers more from global warming than mobile extensive use. Annual average temperatures are steadily increasing in Central Asia and worldwide. Warming in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is similar to or greater than the average global temperature increase. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports some increase in precipitation in Central Asia between 1900 and 2005. However, within the region, precipitation trends have varied, including a decrease in average precipitation . The glacier area of the Tien Shan has reportedly decreased by 25-35% in the 20th century and by 32% in the northern Tien Shan between 1955 and 1999. Projections of climate change for Central Asia are subject to a degree of uncertainty due to the region’s mid-continent location and complex topography.
The productivity of pastures, hay meadows and forage crops is strongly influenced by climate conditions. The 2007 IPCC report concludes with a high probability that Central Asia is highly vulnerable (highest classification) to land degradation due to climate change impacts. Gradual reductions in summer precipitation and increased warming during the growing season are likely to lead to reduced grassland productivity and an increase in bare ground.
Positive effects of climate change are mostly expected on pastures and livestock. A longer growing season and less restriction due to cold temperatures will increase livestock productivity. Pastures, hay meadows and forage crops with sufficient water availability may experience increased productivity due to a longer growing season and reduced effects of cold temperatures. CO2 fertilisation is generally considered more important in tropical systems, but higher CO2 levels may benefit trees and grasses under certain conditions, although these species will not benefit from warming. Clearly, the wide range of likely climate change impacts on pastures and livestock has major social and economic implications for agro-pastoralists. While little empirical work has been done in Central Asia on the While little empirical work in Central Asia shows the direct socio-economic impacts of climate change, the impacts described above are likely to exacerbate the social and economic challenges of sedentary populations.
Adaptation measures can reduce or avoid the impacts of climate change. Research recommends improving pasture management through better grazing and water supply, and strengthening livestock biocapacity through improved shelter, supplementary feeding, breeding and veterinary care. Access to weather and climate information, improving rural livelihoods and enhancing food security have also been recommended as key to climate change adaptation. Various reports recommends the following climate change adaptation measures for the livestock sector in Asia in general, e.g. breeding livestock for greater tolerance and productivity, increasing feed stocks for adverse periods, improving pasture and rangeland management including improved grasslands and pastures, improving stocking rate management and rotation of pastures, increasing the amount of feed available to livestock, planting native grassland species, increasing plant cover per hectare, and providing local specific support for supplementary feed and veterinary services.
Another strategy is to provide insurance options and disaster funds to help pastoralists to cope with harsh
climate events. Climate change adaptation efforts are largely aimed at reducing erosion and increasing plant cover, which is very compatible with mitigation efforts to sequester carbon. Pastures can act as important carbon sinks, and the relevant mitigation potential of pastures can be an opportunity for pastoralists in Central Asia to market the mitigation effect. Although critical to reducing vulnerability to climate change, adaptation efforts are often hampered by environmental, social and cultural, information, financial, technological and political constraints, such as limited access to climate change information, limited national capacity in climate monitoring and forecasting, risk perception and tolerance, lack of coordination of adaptation strategies, and the cost of
adaptation efforts. Another problem comes with the dominance of neighbouring countries. China is widening its efforts to use agriculture in the development of Xinjiang. Although there are attempts to link agricultural activities with the number of resources at hand the disbalance between Central Asian states as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is striking.
Another problem in the field are since independence of all Central Asian states and the rise of China the differences of environmental politics between states like Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Russia and China as big partners, markets and exporters and role models for sedentary politics are the opposite of the pastoral societies of the steppes. Wild plant extraction like herbal tea, liquorice etc. may play here an important role in the linking between mobile and extensive extraction of steppe resources and distant markets of sedentary civilisations.