The authors gratefully acknowledge contributions from Marc Foggin, Chad Dear, Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, Munavar Zhumanova and Jordan Levine in reviewing the manuscript. They also thank Samat Kalmuratov for his support in data collection and Evgenii Shibkov for creating the map. The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia (PAHDAA) programme funded by Global Affairs Canada Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) Mountain Environmental Virtual Observatories (EVO) project funded by the United Kingdom’s National Environmental Research Council.
1After the dissolution of the planned and centralised Soviet economy in 1991, Kyrgyzstan implemented comprehensive changes to the pasture management system with the goal of having decentralised decision making. The results were marked by a lack of coherence in institutional arrangements. This was generally understood to be linked to institutional and values-based legacies of the Soviet period (Undeland 2005, Liechti 2012, Crewett 2015). Other studies have also suggested the reason behind the unsuccessful implementation of community-based natural resource management relates to blueprint enforcement of a management model that ignores local needs (Schmidt & Dorre 2011; Dorre 2015; Ulybina 2015).
2Building on these studies, we further explore the presence of the Soviet institutional logic and herders as a key stakeholder group. The objective of this article is to examine whether present-day pasture governance institutions reproduce the practices, meanings and power hierarchies shaped during the Soviet era. We focus on local-level institutions and herders as a key pasture user category, whose autonomy and responsibility have expanded under the current pasture management arrangement. The reasons for this choice are twofold: first, a large share of responsibility placed on herders in the current community-based pasture management system; and second, the lack of nuanced understandings of herders’ role in the Soviet era and afterwards.
3We investigate the following research questions: first, what is the role of herders in present-day pasture governance, and how has their role changed since Soviet times? And second, how does the Soviet legacy still influence newly created institutions of pasture governance? The analysis is framed by the path dependence theory (Mahoney 2000), which posits that old institutions continue to structure new policy arrangements even when new policy goals contradict the old. Findings are based on empirical data collected in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn Province.
4Kyrgyzstan, which gained independence in 1991, is a mountainous country in Central Asia and a former socialist republic of the Soviet Union. The Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (Kyrgyz SSR) was the third-largest producer of meat and wool in the USSR (Ishenbekova 2010) thanks to its vast areas of pastures that constitute over 85 percent of the total agricultural land area (NREC 2012). Our study area, Naryn Province, hosts one-third of the country’s pasture land and specialises in livestock production. In the late Soviet period, Naryn Province contained almost 25% of all sheep in the Kyrgyz SSR. This included the production of 26% of lamb and 26% of wool of the total production in the Kyrgyz SSR (Tarakanov 1984).
5The land use policy goal during Soviet times was to maximise the extraction of natural resources to boost agricultural production. Collective farms organised intensive sheep herding with transhumant grazing practices from near-village to distant pastures. This was supported with both infrastructure (roads and bridges) and incentives for herders (rural medical points, winter houses in distant pastures, etc.) (Undeland 2005). However, this intensive approach to land use management led to a decrease in productivity, as well as overgrazing and pasture degradation (Shamsiev 2007; Ishenbekova 2010).
6Recommendations for the rehabilitation of degraded pastures were developed by responsible government bodies, such as the National Institute for Land Use Planning (Giprozem) and the Pasture Research Institute. Collective and state-owned farms were responsible for implementing those recommendations (Wolfgramm et al. 2015). However, farms considered reclamation measures an additional burden and were generally reluctant to implement them. There were neither real sanctions for non-rational use of pastureland nor economic incentives for pasture rehabilitation (Ishenbekova 2010, interview with V. Shikhotov). Moreover, pasture reclamation measures were always initiated by the highest authorities rather than at the farm level. Herders were also disinterested in implementing pasture rotation because this was not part of their work obligations.
7Thus, all actors in the Soviet pasture management system had their own objectives dictated by central governmental decisions: Collective farms and herders had to increase livestock production, while Giprozem had to conduct pasture monitoring and assessment and provide recommendations.
8Herders were an integral part of the Soviet pasture management system. Their performance was measured according to a narrow metric system: how well livestock fattened and reproduced, and how much wool was collected.
9Decisions on pasture use were made by agricultural experts from the Kyrgyz SSR’s Ministry of Agriculture, then herders worked closely with farms to implement the instructions issued by the ministerial experts. However, since pasture conditions did not fall under their purview, herders often used their discretion to prioritise the goals set for them – for example, by maximising animal weight gain and wool production at the expense of pasture ecology (Liechti 2012).
Figure 1. A herder with over 30 years of experience inside a yurt on a summer pasture, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, July 2015
Photo by Aiganysh Isaeva
10Herders’ role in maintaining the key asset of the farm was recognised and encouraged by collective farms with cash, awards or commodities (Steimann 2011). Many herders were provided with various comforts to live in remote pastures. This included entertainment (e.g. mobile cinema, library), housing and services to take care of livestock (veterinary services, etc.). However, there are also some accounts of inadequate provisions for herders (Ishenbekova, 2010), such as the poor quality of housing and the insufficient number of rural health posts.
11Herders on remote pastures had some other advantages too, such as a de facto higher degree of freedom from authorities. In addition, they could earn extra income by keeping animals on the side for their own consumption, albeit at the expense of farm fodder (Steimann 2011). Generally, herding was seen as a lifelong sustainable job, profession and lifestyle.
12After the collapse of the Soviet Union and gaining independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan underwent several significant reforms on privatisation and decentralisation, as well as the de-collectivisation of collective and state-owned farms.
13In 2009, following the first reform on individual long-term lease rights, the government adopted a new pasture law that introduced a so-called “community-based pasture management system”. Under this system, responsibility and control over all types of pastures were delegated to a newly established institution: Pasture Users Associations (PUAs) (Law of the Kyrgyz Republic no 30 “On pastures” 2009). PUAs were designed as public organisations to consolidate all local pasture users and represent their interests through their own executive body, a Pasture Committee (PC). Thus, it was anticipated that decisions would be made in a participatory and inclusive way and that such a decision-making mode would lead to greater equality in access to pastures and consequently to optimal stocking rates on different pastures (Crewett 2015, Dorre 2015, Shigaeva et al. 2016).
14The study area is located in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn Province. Sparsely populated, it is the largest of seven provinces. It is endowed with one-third of the country’s pasture land and specialises in livestock production. After the collapse of collective and state-owned farms, thousands of small-scale subsistence farms emerged, focusing on livestock husbandry and crop production.
Figure 2. Kyrgyzstan and Naryn Province
Map designed by Evgenii Shibkov, 2016
- 1 Municipalities (Kyrgyz: ayil okmotu) usually consist of several villages (up to 10). Owing to ethic (...)
15The empirical data come from two rural case studies in Naryn Province. Municipality A1 is located approximately 15 km from Naryn Town at an altitude of around 2,100 m above sea level. Its climatic conditions allow for crop production, largely for household consumption. During the Soviet era, a major cattle-breeding collective farm was located there, which led to an improvement in local residents’ qualifications and the relevant infrastructure. The municipality’s proximity to Naryn Town means access to medical care, markets, educational institutions, offices of governmental departments, and other organisations and services.
16Municipality B is located approximately 60 km from Naryn Town at an altitude of around 2,400 m above sea level. Its harsh climatic conditions make it much more difficult to grow crops, which restricts its population’s nutritional options and agricultural economic activities. Municipality B is located at a dead end: There are few commuting options, and in order to get to other sites, villagers have to rely on their own cars or taxis. The municipality’s distance from Naryn Town, a regional economic and social centre, results in more limited communication, especially information exchange, and fewer encounters with external actors.
17Fieldwork was conducted in 2014 and 2015 in both municipalities and their associated pastures. In the autumn of 2014, we obtained lists of herders from both of the PCs and interviewed all available herders staying in the villages. We also asked them to suggest other herders (snowball method) in order to ensure we also included herders that were not on the PCs’ lists. Seven in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with herders. In the summer of 2015, following recommendations by the PCs of the same municipalities, we also interviewed herders who reside on high pastures throughout the summer. As a result, we conducted 38 additional structured interviews with herders and their wives, increasing the total sample size to 45 interviews over both years.
18Additional interviews were also conducted with heads of the PCs, specialists from the Agency for Rural Development & Investment (ARIS), land management experts and a Soviet land use expert. Topics included current pasture condition, land management practices, observed climate patterns and pasture governance institutions. All of the interviews were conducted in Kyrgyz. Interviews were transcribed and translated into English. Extensive field notes and interview notes were taken throughout the project, and relevant legislation and pasture management plans relevant to both communities were reviewed.
19One of the few theoretical frameworks that help to elucidate the performance of former Soviet states is the concept of path dependence (Sehring 2009, Mahoney 2000). This view posits that any society is, in effect, a set of institutions that shape actors’ behaviour. Institutions are conceptualised as “the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic, and social interaction. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights)” (North 1992, 97).
20The central assumption of this framework is that earlier institutions and traditions may operate as a structure that shapes new policies and actors according to old paths, even when the new policy logic is completely the opposite (Nielsen et al. 1995). The ways in which institutions operate also affect people’s views and beliefs (and hence, norms of what is acceptable), and such belief systems change only gradually. Thus, it is clear that past institutions can affect (i.e. partially determine) how new institutions fare. Tridico (2011, 138) contends that “old habits, previous behavioural patterns, old ethos and the existence of old lobbies and all the informal institutions curb the dissemination of new formal institutions and their reinforcement”.
21The persistence of old institutional patterns does not mean that new alternatives are sub-optimal. In practice, however, as time goes by and institutional settings are crystallised, the reversal of patterns becomes more costly, and thus actors have fewer incentives to reverse (Levi 1997). This is the ‘path dependence’ effect, which operates through self-reinforcing mechanisms. Continued implementation of given arrangements increases the costs of reversal, and thus all the more people and institutions invest resources into maintaining such previously selected paths (Prado & Trebilcock 2009). Further exploration of alternatives is discouraged, which leads to a greater ‘lock-in’ to a given path (Arthur 1994).
22The path dependence framework is relevant to the present investigation of resource governance institutions. Moreover, this framework has often been applied to post-Soviet contexts, especially with regard to social, political and economic transformations (Luong 2004; Sehring 2009; Wooden & Stefes 2009; Zvirgzde et al. 2013), which strengthens the advantages of using this approach.
23Herders have evolved from salaried farm labourers executing orders and holding very limited decision-making power during the Soviet period to become formally independent actors in the post-Soviet period. All the while, in socio-economic dimensions, herders are now a much more heterogeneous group than they used to be during the Soviet era.
24Several distinct categories are observed amongst present-day herders.
25The first is a relatively small group of older men who often worked on state or collective farms in Soviet times and now herd their own family livestock. This type of herder is usually better off than other village dwellers: They are likely to own a lorry, a yurt (transportable tent made of felt and wood) and other facilities (such as a solar power system). This makes them more equipped to migrate relatively easily to distant pastures and to stay there for longer periods.
26The second category is comprised of a larger group of young herders. These people tend to herd livestock collected from several families, and they may move on to different careers later in life.
27The third category of herders is mainly comprised of middle-aged herders who have been engaged in farming and livestock breeding their whole lives. Some of these people herd collected livestock, while others manage only their family herds.
Figure 3. A solar power system behind a yurt on a summer pasture, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, July 2015
Photo by Aiganysh Isaeva.
28Table 1 presents the basic professional characteristics of the herders interviewed for this study.
Table 1. Interviewed herders by length of experience, diversity of herd composition and herd ownership.
Up to 25 years
26 and more years
Only 1-3 livestock species (sheep, goats, cows)
4-6 livestock species (sheep, goats, cows, horses, yaks, camels)
Number of herders
29In terms of herding experience, two kinds of herders are noted: those whose track record includes the Soviet and post-Soviet period, and those who have witnessed only post-Soviet management regimes (including the introduction of the 2002 pasture lease arrangement and the 2009 pasture law). The majority of interviewed herders took care of their fellow villagers’ livestock (29 herders). These hired herders who look after collected livestock (rather than tending to their own family’s animals) are usually men younger than their early thirties, while those herding family livestock tend to be older men.
30All the herders tend sheep, goats and cows, and over half of them also include horses, camels and/or yaks in their flocks.
31The motivation to take up herding was also found to vary: Some herders used to work for collective or state farms, and as employment opportunities vanished they embarked on herding. Others suggested it had been a traditional activity for their ancestors. A few people have been doing it only since retiring from a different job. The most common reason, though, is a lack of employment alternatives – especially for the younger herders.
32After the dissolution of collective farms, herders’ autonomy in pasture governance increased significantly. Now they can choose numbers and the kinds of animals to collect from fellow villagers (in the case of hired herders); thus, their wage depends on the number of animals collected and their communication skills to negotiate favourable terms. In fact, herders have also been inadvertently performing some of the PC functions, such as deciding which pasture to use and for how long.
“Now herders are independent; they don’t need to report to any higher authority. During Soviet times, herders were forced to follow regulations. So being a herder now is better.” (PC head #2)
33Moreover, herders now also have an institutionalised platform to exercise their power: a Pasture Users Association. Far from being cognisant of their own membership in the PUA, many herders are simply unaware of the existence of PUAs in their municipality. One interviewee, a knowledgeable herder who clearly articulated the mandates of other pasture management institutions, nevertheless outright claimed there was no PUA, even though every municipality has one by law (see articles 2 and 6 of the Law of the Kyrgyz Republic no 30 “On pastures” 2009). Even when they were aware of the existence of the PUAs, very few interviewed herders attend PUA meetings or participate in its work.
34Likewise, very few could coherently describe how the PC (the executive arm of the PUA) operates. Only five of the interviewed herders correctly explained how pasture governance actors operate; all the others confused the PC with either village government or the Forestry Agency (leskhoz). Furthermore, herders are not generally elected to serve on the PCs; thus, they do not participate in the development of pasture management plans that PCs call them to adhere to.
35Specialists of governmental agencies and research institutes still expect herders to perform up to the Soviet standards (in terms of livestock breeding and wool collection), but herders cannot meet those expectations. Besides, according to multiple accounts from our interviewees, some of those presently engaged in herding do not have comparable knowledge – and most importantly, they do not consider herding to be a lifelong profession. Many herders do not identify strongly with herding. Some interviewees (non-herders) noted that herding is increasingly seen as a quick way to secure income in a rural setting:
“They [herders] used to think about how well the livestock can gain weight. Now they only consider livestock heads, as they are paid per head. They stopped paying attention to wool, weight gained, and breed.” (ARIS specialist)
“There are some good herders. But there are also so-called commercialised herders who chase money, and they try to stay near roads [to sell dairy products].” (PC heads #1)
36While herders should clearly be an integral part of the current pasture governance system and work closely with PCs, in reality – in the communities we examined – interaction between herders and PCs is generally marked by a lack of communication and often by opposition. Nevertheless, herders continue to use the pastures they wish, while PCs simultaneously submit reports on how well pastures are managed according to plan.
37Both municipalities’ PCs have been experiencing difficulties in developing and operationalising their institutional design. One source of difficulty has been that the very concept of community-based organisingzation remains relatively new for many people whose mental maps were formed during the Soviet period and are therefore accustomed to more hierarchical and centralised power relations. PCs are now conceived as community-based organisations, and membership draws on both the village government and the village council (article 6, Law of the Kyrgyz Republic no 30 “On pastures” 2009). In practice, however, many herders only mention the village government when asked about pasture managing bodies. All too regularly, they conflate PCs with the village government. This is evident in the following herder’s description of the role of the PC:
“The pasture department [referring to the PC] under the village government collects fees and indicates when to move.” (Herder #9)
38Such views and various (mis)understandings lead to divergent interpretations of PC functions by its staff, governmental authorities and pasture users. Our interviews reveal that government administration often continues to apply a centralised controlling model of interaction with the PC. One of the PC heads who were interviewed was concerned that rayon (district) administration officials still demand his reports, and he is not sure whether the PC is accountable to that agency:
“The law clearly states that rayon administrative departments have no right to interfere with the internal work of the PC. However, our rayon department demands our reports on a monthly basis, even if they have no right to do so. The PC is a community-based, non-governmental organisation.” (PC head #2)
39Such obscurity is coupled with a discord between the PCs’ mandate and available tools. According to the law, PCs should carry out pasture monitoring and be aware of the actual pasture productivity (clause 5, article 6, Law of the Kyrgyz Republic no 30 “On pastures” 2009). However, interviewed PC heads reported that, because of a lack of resources, they can monitor only a portion of pasture under their jurisdiction on an annual basis. Meanwhile, the scarcity of information leads to random or ill-informed pasture allocation, which in turn can contribute to conflicts over pastures and exacerbate pasture degradation.
40PCs should also develop pasture management plans based on pasture conditions, allocate pasture areas in compliance with the plan and ensure that herders move in a timely fashion to other pastures (clause 5, article 6, Law of the Kyrgyz Republic no 30 “On pastures” 2009). Additionally, each PC’s assessment of pasture condition should draw on pastures’ carrying capacity (one of the foundations of Soviet-time pasture management), albeit with due recognition given to annual climatic variability; hence, there is a need for the dynamic tracking of carrying capacities. This measure generally indicates how many animals a given pasture can sustain (under current conditions). Traditionally, since Soviet times, Giprozem has calculated local carrying capacities based on pasture monitoring results. In practice, however, many herders explained how they simply use the pastures that have long been used by their ancestors and not because these pastures were allocated to them by PCs. Moreover, some herders admit that they have never interacted directly with PC staff:
“I have been grazing for 10 years, and PC hasn’t said anything. We [herders] make our own decisions about grazing rotation and migration.” (Herder #4)
41In sum, most PCs report on the implementation of pasture management plans and on compliance with pasture carrying capacity indicators, while the actual practice of pasture use operates rather independently of those reports.
42Herders have gone through major transformations in their profession in Kyrgyzstan in recent decades. The new legislative framework of the 2009 pasture law presents herders with a range of new opportunities and mechanisms through which they could be more involved in making critical decisions. In fact, a key institution – the PUA – was designed to represent resource users (herders) and ensure their active participation in resource use regulation. United through the PUA, herders could potentially have greater decision-making power by staffing the PCs, setting agendas, keeping PCs accountable and developing resource use rules that they are invited to follow. However, from the interviews we see that herders have generally neither identified themselves as an independent class of actors or stakeholders nor self-organised into a group to protect their own interests. In short, we have not observed herders having a collective identity or an awareness of their own agency. In many ways, herders keep acting within the old institutional logic (Soviet-time rigid division of labour) in which they were responsible only for livestock.
43As herders do not take ownership of the power that has formally been given to them, regulations are developed without their voice. As a result, the resource use rules are being communicated to their primary users from the top in an authoritative manner characteristic of Soviet governmental models – completely contrary to the logic of ‘common pool resource’ governance systems. This finding is in line with the conclusions of Crewett (2015) regarding bureaucrats designing the rules for own convenience and the findings of Dorre & Borchardt (2012) about the lack of management in pasture utilisation.
44At the same time, we observe that herders represent a diverse and disaggregated group of people who remain largely disconnected from the environment, and most narrowly focus only on livestock. Liechti (2012) explains that during the Soviet period herders and other agricultural specialists had an atomised function. Consequently, they lost a more comprehensive, holistic approach to their environment. Furthermore, Crewett (2012) suggests that such a disconnect between the herders and the land and environment leads to a general disregard for environmental concerns. In her exploration of why herders have not been using remote pastures, she found that when choosing a pasture for grazing, herders tend to prioritise non-environmental factors such as proximity to settlements.
45Moreover, the origin of herders’ disregard for pasture conditions is twofold. First, the institutionalised Soviet attitude towards pastures as a means to an end has translated into herders abusing pastures to earn money. The notion that pastures are exhaustible resources has been overlooked. This has also been demonstrated by the studies of Liechti (2012) and Crewett (2012). Second, some herders’ attitude towards and choice of herding only as a short-term and quick way to earn money also contributes to a disregard for basic environmental aspects of pasture use.
46It is hard for PCs to find their own niche within the old institutional conceptual framework that lingers on. This is partly due to a mandate inadequately outlined in the law. The vague definition enables different interpretations, as well as the continued dominance of former modes of operation.
47Moreover, the PC is still perceived through the prism of Soviet pasture management institutions and thus mistaken for a governmental body. Such a lack of horizontal coordination is also highlighted by Crewett (2012) as a feature of the Soviet legacy. PCs are struggling to understand their own role and how they can interact with other actors (governmental bodies, herders). In spite of their new and promising form (as community-based institutions), their content is filled with known ingredients.
48We see that some practices of current pasture governance are rather novel, while in other respects the legacy of the Soviet institutional logic retains its strong influence. Herders, for their part, keep within a limited space of functions, while the PC develops as a branch of local government in Soviet power traditions.
49We found that the operation of institutions in the pasture governance system of present-day Kyrgyzstan still largely depends on several elements from the Soviet era. The first is the non-participatory implementation mode, which means that resource users are unaware of their decision-making power. It is coupled with more formal reporting to higher authorities rather than engaging users in actual implementation. Second, herders remain disconnected – and often peripheral and heterogeneous – actors, and they do not realise their own potential in resource use rules formation and pasture governance. Third, the exploitative attitude to pasture still lingers on in the resource use logic of new institutions. This includes not only practices but also the framing of pastures as a tool that can always be rehabilitated.
50Obviously there is a limit to what share of actions is dictated by the inertia of previous institutions (path dependence framework), while the other share may be a response to change and novelty (forced by markets and other driving forces). This ratio is very hard to calculate. The cases in which herders keep doing what they used to do and those in which they respond to new stimuli (changing conditions, market and others) are based on an intricate interplay of factors. The same relates to how PCs take up their role. The performance of PCs varies throughout Naryn Province and across the country, and it is contingent upon how the PC heads interpret their mandate and local community needs. Their performance also depends on other external factors, such as population density, availability of other income generation options, symbolic role of livestock and so on.
51However, in spite of the persistence of Soviet legacy elements, we do observe certain shifts. Several PCs have endeavoured to tackle legal ambiguity. The heads of 16 PCs in the Naryn rayon, for instance, have established an association of PCs (according to the PC head in one of the sub-districts studied). The establishment of such an association is driven by several instances of PC heads being requested to report to the governor of the rayon and the PC heads questioning this reporting line. This new association now serves as a platform for PC heads to regularly discuss common bottlenecks and to address them. Currently the association is soliciting legal advice to clarify the legal position of PCs and their relation to governmental bodies. It will also help the PCs to assert their own niche in current pasture governance.
52Based on our findings, we recommend that governmental authorities and development agencies help strengthen the capacity of herders. This assistance should include making them aware of their obligations and opportunities in the context of cooperation with PCs and within the pasture governance system in general. Also, enshrining herders’ obligations and rights in the legal framework would be useful. Raising PCs’ awareness of their legal status, tools and mandate would also be valuable and would strengthen resource users, including herders. Overall, capacity development would help the community-based management system to work more effectively and as intended, in particular to represent, support and strengthen wider groups of resource users in Kyrgyzstan’s pastures areas.