Strengthening rights to the commons

Kyrgyz Republic is a small mountainous country in Central Asia. More than 90 percent of the agricultural land is classified as pastures which play an important role in livelihoods of rural livestock communities for grazing of animals, collecting medicinal and aromatic herbs, berries and mushrooms, timber and dung for heating and cooking, as well as being recreational areas for growing tourism. At the same time, pastures have received relatively little attention in the country's post-independence land reforms processes. There were clear signs that some pasture land, especially around villages is heavily overgrazed and degraded, and remote are polluted with weeds being unused. Huge plots of pasture lands were leased by a few rich farmers or mostly by absentee livestock owners who subleased
this land informally to communities living around the area. With the livestock number growing, there have been more and more conflicts around the access to pastures by small farmers and community herds. The major reason for this was ineffective legal and administrative arrangements for pasture management based on Soviet and then Western models which undermined traditional practices of community based pasture use gearing towards individual farming and viewing pastures as plots instead of as an ecosystem.

The Kyrgyz people had been historically engaged in pastoral transhumance, taking advantage of the features of the country's extremely mountainous terrain which is suitable for grazing at different times of the year at different altitudes which hence naturally supports pastoral herding. In the past, Kyrgyz tribes would spend winters in encampments in valleys and lower areas with no snow cover, then move with their herds to spring pastures at medium altitudes, and then further move to summer pastures, only to return via fall pastures to their encampment.

Kyrgyz female herding cattle. Photo and copyright: Asyl Undeland
Kyrgyz female milking yak. Photo and copyright: Asyl and Charles Undeland

In doing so, there was a de facto system of use of different pastures that ensured against overgrazing and provided access to all. Decision-making on pasture management was made in large part through decentralized tribal groupings. The inherent risks and difficulties of this nomadic lifestyle also served to keep flock numbers down, preventing overgrazing. This system had the following key features:

  • an absence of individual property rights and ownership
  • ability of communities move with their herds freely through the landscapes depending on availability of fodder vegetation and needs
  • highly decentralized decision-making about allocating grazing rights to pastures
  • limited competition for pasture land
  • social agreement in and between communities limiting conflicts over pastures
  • no apparent overgrazing

This age-old method of pasture use was changed during the Soviet Union when nomadic Kyrgyz were forced to settle and all animals were nationalized, with livestock herding organized into collective and state farm structures.

The Soviets launched an aggressive intensification of the numbers of flocks through very heavy usage of all available pastures, as well as addressing the risks that had kept flock numbers down, most notably through the regular provision of reliable fodder for winter and early spring, machinery based transportation systems. The Soviets particularly focused on sheep production, turning the Kyrgyz Republic into a 'wool and meat factory' for the whole union. At the same time, some pre-Soviet elements remained, particularly the retention of tribal and communal linkages for regulation of social and economic affairs, but old practices of unaided transhumance and understanding of sustainable pasture use had been lost.

Following independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan launched rural reforms primarily aimed at land privatization and establishment of market based farming. Foremost, among these reforms was the dissolution of collective and state farms. This change had a powerful impact on pasture management and usage, because in the Soviet era these units were the key organizers of how pastures were used. They were replaced by a range of state entities with responsibility for management of different types of pastures (themselves determined by their distance from settlements rather than their timeliness for grazing as had been the case in the pre-Soviet period). The lack of comprehensive policy towards pastures, and a comprehensive administrative arrangement to implement this policy and manage pastures was a major problem. Pasture management was fragmented within three tiers of Government agencies at the regional, district and village levels, while use rights were provided on a first come, first serve basis. There was widespread avoidance of formalizing use rights with large number of villagers preferring use of pastures on a communal basis that did not correlate to what was foreseen in the legislation. In many places, pasture usage had reverted to old tribal methods, but without the elements of transhumance that supported rational use of resources.

Kyrgyz Government with the support from donors, mainly the World Bank and International Fund for Agricultural Development, started reviewing pasture management issues in 2005. Major problems in pasture management, use, access and maintenance mentioned above were highlighted in the World Bank Livestock Sector Study presented to the country stakeholders in 2005. This study urged Kyrgyz Government to start pasture reforms to ensure environmental sustainability of vast landscapes, while promoting community based pasture management built on traditional practices to support growing livestock sector (Undeland, 2005. Kyrgyz Livestock Study: Pasture Management and Use; pdf available via this link).

Kyrgyz Ministry Of Agriculture with support from the World Bank drafted a new Pasture Law which was adopted in early 2009. The major features of the new legal framework are the following:

  • Pasture Law decentralized management of all pasture land to local government with further option of decentralization to pasture users who formed Pasture Users' Unions (PUU)
  • Pasture Users Unions developed Community Based Pasture Management and Use Plans which serve as a foundation for management, maintenance, improvements and use
  • Pastures are viewed as an ecosystems and the new law has replaced leases with use rights to encourage mobility and pasture rotation, as well as to ensure fair access for all users
  • Revenue from pasture use comes to PUUs accounts and used for pasture improvements
  • Other users besides livestock holders participate in decision making processes and are represented in the Pasture Committees; these are commonly women and poor, who have no livestock but collect and harvest various resources on the pasture lands.

Key factors

The key factors which made this law possible were related to the government's will to undertake reforms despite strong resistance from vested interests, and to the support of the international community regarding the development of strategies, formulating policy and financing social mobilization of PUUs. Having a reform champion in the government (the Director of the Pasture Department), helped tremendously to develop a new legal framework and to navigate it through the Parliament.

Yurts on Kyrgyz pastures. Photo and copyright: Asyl and Charles Undeland

Another extremely important factor was that rural communities wholeheartedly supported this reform which brought management of land and resources into the hands of its users, and reflected customary practices taking traditional knowledge into account. And mostly, it protects communities' landscapes from being grabbed by the few rich and powerful who have been inhibiting villagers' accesses to pasture lands, limiting their benefits from these resources and degrading resources without making any improvements and investments. At the same time, this reform is the first of this type in the region and in the whole former Soviet Union and thus heavily relying on international theoretical knowledge and practical experiences.

IASC Involvement of the IASC

As a Kyrgyz social scientist and member of the World Bank Livestock Sector Study and Agricultural Investments Support Project preparation team, I had been struggling with access to this knowledge and experience first to participate in formulation of recommendations for the Kyrgyz Government on major directions for the reforms and further on developing a legal, institutional and social framework for this reform. Being a member of IASC, attending its conferences on issues of commons, reading publications available without fees on IASC web site helped me tremendously while participating in these challenging but exciting reforms.

Authored by: Asyl Undeland, independent social and institutional development professional