Sustainable Pasture Management in Kyrgyzstan
Events intern Caroline Tracey ‘14 spent her summer on an environmental fellowship studying pasture management in Kyrgyzstan. Here, she muses on her Russian lit background and the sociopolitical controversies that shape the country’s agricultural landscape.
I spent a month of this summer in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic nestled between China and Kazakhstan. It was clear to me before I arrived that environmental issues were at the forefront of the minds of the people in the country. For one thing, less than a month before my visit to Kyrgyzstan, a large riot broke out at the Kumtor mine, a gold mine on the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. The mine accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, but is owned and managed by a Canadian company. About 1,000 people, some arriving on horseback, camped out for days and blockaded the road from the mine to Bishkek, calling for Kyrgyzstan to receive a bigger share of the mine’s profits.
My studies as a Russian literature major have focused on Russian writers’ treatment of landscape: how authors understand vast, unending landscapes; what kind of culture and specific experiences develop in places marked by vastness. I have also versed myself in the contemporary environmental challenges that come with these kinds of landscapes. During my trip this summer, I planned to find out how the country’s pastoral heritage was faring in the modern economy.
Horse supplies at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek
Flying into Bishkek delighted me: it felt like flying into Denver, where I grew up. Tall, snow-capped (even in July) mountains are visible in the distance, and the flat, brown land that holds the airport and the city slides up to meet them. From the plane window I could see both dry and irrigated fields; windbreaks; and small reservoirs. There were fewer roads than I was used to; the land wasn’t gridded, as the whole middle of America is, and so the fields took stranger shapes, strips and trapezoids. On the drive into the city, I drove by a young boy herding goats with a stick, and I realized there wasn’t going to be any shortage of interesting things to learn about pasture agriculture.
Here’s what I found out:
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the land and livestock holdings of collective farms were parceled out to their employees based on seniority. This immediately led to crisis: most employees had held positions unrelated to animal husbandry - they had been drivers or bookkeepers - and were unprepared to manage their own farm animals. Most - seventy percent, a pasture manager later estimated to me - floundered. Their animals died, and they lost their chance at financial solvency in the new economy. To make matters worse, those that did succeed in raising their animals met the harsh reality of the new system: they worked all year only to sell their animals at market for a price so low it often wasn’t even a profit. Now, the prices are better, thanks to consumers from Kazakhstan, where the economy is much stronger, crossing the border to buy animals in cheaper Kyrgyzstan. The increased demand means that Kyrgyz people have a financial incentive to go into agriculture - farmers in the villages often make more money than middle-class people in Bishkek.
Abandoned Collective Farm
Kyrgyz “farmers” are more like what we would refer to as ranchers (if you want to talk about vegetable or fruit farmers, you have to specify). They raise animals, and sell them at large, open-air markets. During the winter months, their animals are in their villages’ town pastures, either within the town or just outside of it, and during the summer months, they bring their animals (along with the animals of other villagers who have paid them to look after their animals for the summer) to the rural pasture. The rural pastures are mountain camps where the farmers live in yurts with their families while the animals graze the high range.
Talas Livestock Market
Unloading bulls from the mountain pastures for sale at the market
The requirement to bring their animals up to rural pastures, I learned, is one of a group of radical changes to pasture law that were enacted beginning in 2009. Kyrgyzstan was one of the only meat-producing countries in the Soviet Union, and as a result of always-increasing demands from distant Moscow, the country left the USSR highly overgrazed. Until 2009, when the country really began to gain some traction on the challenges of privatization, pastures were private. Now, with the new pasture law, the land is government owned again, and pastures are managed by a village committee. Each town has been assigned a piece of rural pasture that corresponds with the size of the village. The “closed,” or “winter,” pastures within or nearby the towns are not to be used during the summer, so that they can recover from the last year of use.
Highway overlooking government pastures
Sheep running in on the rural pasture
Before I had learned about the distinction between rural and closed pastures, I experienced the distinction firsthand, by being in transit between the two. Having approached a tunnel through a mountain pass, my minibus back from Talas found itself stopped at the entrance, along with a parking lot’s worth of cars. Finally, fifteen confused minutes later, a man on horseback emerged from the dark opening. He was followed by a whole large herd of horses, who tried their best to follow his lead and navigate their way through the herd of cars.
So you can imagine it made sense to me when the pasture manager of the town of Barskoon explained that the reason that people hadn’t made sufficient use of the rural pastures until they were required to by law was that there was not sufficient infrastructure to reach the rural pastures. 2 million som, he said, or about $40,000 - a very large sum of money in Kyrgyzstan, where the middle class makes about $160 per month - has been marked for new bridges to the rural pastures. It remains to be seen, however, whether that money will make it through the government’s extreme corruption.
As I talked to more and more people in Kyrgyzstan about pasture management, I came to the most surprising conclusion I could have: pasturing seems to be moving in a good direction. Certainly it would be hard to create a system that does more damage than the Soviet Union’s system. But I am disposed to expect that the arc towards capitalism is an unstoppable and destructive force, and the Kyrgyz people proved me wrong. They tried out privatizing their pasture land, and fifteen years later returned to a system of the commons. The pasture committee system is still young, and the law still needs changes, but the new system stipulates an attitude toward rangeland that shares both resources and responsibility.
When I describe this, I am reminded of a presentation I saw at the forestry school as part of its grasslands lunch series three years ago. It was on the “buffalo commons,” an idea published in Planning magazine in the 1980’s, suggesting that the emptying American prairie should be returned to buffalo rangeland. The idea was virulently rejected. But yesterday I read in the High Country News that Montana is slowly introducing free-ranging bison. Perhaps with enough committed minds, the commons - east and west - will get their chance to succeed.
Pizza and Events intern Onagh MacKenzie ‘15, who grew up on a sprawling rural livestock farm, on how she learned to appreciate the bite-sized Yale version:
Farming, to me, has always meant land. Lots of it. It has meant being able to turn 360 degrees and not see a man-made structure. Or hear anything other than the cows and their cud.
When my parents moved to Naples, New York over thirty years ago, they bought half an old dairy farm, the worn-in house, and its fifty acres. My brother has since used the entire farm, our fields and woods, along with the other original half, to establish his own sustainable meat farm. No more of my dad’s disorganized, motley crew of Scottish Highland cows. We have a “real” farm operation now, with ear tags and rotating pastures and three strands of fencing instead of one. (Sometimes I find myself missing the weekly call from the neighbors telling us our cows were in the road, or, sometimes, their garden.)
The main constraint on my brother’s operation hasn’t been lack of manpower or customers, but land. The 100 acres have long ceased to be enough. The cows and sheep now spill over onto neighboring land which we lease from its owners. To compensate for the distance in grass, we need to have sheep road moves between pastures. “Sheep in the Road” signs go up on either end of the journey, and in the middle it’s a sea of wooly bodies, swarming around the cars and invading the ditches. We’re reminded just how much we could use those extra acres of our own.
The idea that a farm could exist without acres of fields and with sidewalks, passing traffic, and a city skyline in the distance was a foreign concept to me. Urban farming seemed too much of an incongruity. Then I found my way to the Yale Farm. Instead of road sheep moves, we have perfectly aligned greenhouses and beds of veggies measured to take advantage of every last patch of earth. At 345 Edwards Street, lack of land is an inspiration: rather than focusing on what we don’t have, the small space encourages innovation.
But it’s more than just a space to be utilized: the Farm is a space to enjoy, a space to appreciate farming for more than just its fields and its time in nature. At the Yale Farm I have learned to love sustainable agriculture for its desire to spread good food and to appreciate where it comes from. The Farm is a space for the people, and the parts of friends that only come out when picking carrots. Space for the pause in my life that Friday afternoons provide, a time to breathe after the sprint of the week. And you know what? When I’m bent over in the garden bed, proudly checking out the dirt under my fingernails, or with my head stuck in the pizza oven, monitoring the cooking dough, I don’t even notice the skyline.