By Our Own Law: Kyrgyz pastoralism in the wake of land reform

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by Anthony Wenndt on 3/11/2015

Wide-eyed and claustrophobic in a minivan taxi cab, I sat and pondered. Having just spent several days with pasture users in Doobolu village in Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan, I had many thoughts to chew on as the wintry cab windows revealed glimpses of the mountainscape. Kyrgyz pastoralism amidst decades of land reform policy, I thought, had been left as crooked as the pitiful roads which trace Kyrgyzstan’s mountain passes.

I puzzled over the responses I had received from interviewees regarding their usage paradigms, their adherence to customs, and their awareness of land reform policy. I recognized that ignorance of land law among pastoral communities had persisted not as a result of lawlessness, but rather as a consequence of unaccountability and systemic mistrust between policymakers and those who put policies to practice.

Pasture law in Kyrgyzstan is characterized by community-level management and user-driven regulation–at least in principle. The 2009 law “On Pastures,” which was introduced upon the government’s realization that post-Soviet farmland privatization, which in some way spilled into the pasture sector, too dramatically contradicted customary conceptions of land tenure, set out to restore some integral collective aspects of pastoral tradition. To do so, the law dictated that all pasture land was to become property of the state and that local administrative bodies, called djait komitet, perform regulatory and managerial tasks, taking into account the contextual specificities of each community. The law “On Pastures,” prompted a structural shift whereby pasture users earned access to the land not by renting a geographical space, but by renting usage rights from the djait komitet on a per-head of livestock basis.

Theoretically, the scheme is clear-cut. Local pasture committees are given jurisdiction over an allotted space, pasture users report their pasture needs, and collectively the entities orchestrate plans for spatial and temporal herd mobility which embrace the seasonal vertical rotation model characteristic of traditional practice. However, I quickly learned that the condition on the ground is far removed from the legislated ideal.

In Doobolu I administered 12 interviews over the course of 2 blustery January days. The farmers’ responses were ubiquitous and resounding: “we live by our own law here.” These words, often sliding past grins of comic satisfaction from the worn farmers’ faces, each time gave me pause. Perhaps my own academically-enriched biases toward good governance and upstanding citizenship were strung up in a space too utopian for the “real world.” I entered Doobolu with a sense that the law had made an impact, and was utterly shocked when farmer after farmer explained their relationship with the pasture committee essentially as “they come once a year, take the money, and we use the pastures as we please.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for autonomy. But at the same time I saw (and still do see) in the law a real potential for sustainability and advancement of the Kyrgyz pastoral enterprise both socially and economically.

It wasn’t until my taxi ride back to the city, stuffed between vomiting toddlers on a chilly minivan’s back seat, that I realized the law hadn’t actually missed the mark so drastically in Doobolu. In fact, it seemed that the basic intentions of the law “On Pastures” had actually come to fruition, ironically amidst a striking neglect of the law itself.

Namely, in tossing the legislation aside and taking managerial tasks into their own hands, pasture users had deconstructed the post-Soviet land management model and calibrated their ideological framework back toward the customary paradigm–a shift that the law had aimed to achieve. Further, several respondents claimed that in the wake of djait komitet formation, and in the subsequent (albeit unintentional) absence of local-level administrative influence, users felt a sense of autonomy in tailoring their pastoral experience to the specific social and geographic context.

So what’s the problem? Truly, it seems that one way or another–law or not–pasture management in Kyrgyzstan had taken a turn for the better, toward community-guided management, precisely in a direction policymakers had anticipated in creating the pasture law. Even so, it’s worth pointing out that improvements generated by farmers’ own leanings toward tradition, while substantial, are limited. While my observations have evidenced that customary pastoral traditions could be revitalized with or without adherence to the new law, the somewhat superficial nature of these improvements masks some of the subtler, deeper issues which the law aims to address, such as environmental impact, land quality, social and infrastructural development, agricultural outreach, and veterinary medicine. It is therefore imperative that attentions be refocused toward building strong relationships between pasture users and their respective djait komitets, such that the progresses already realized by farmers living according to “their own law” can catalyze smallholder mobilization around land reform policy and help to fully realize its promised benefits.

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Anthony J. Wenndt is a senior undergraduate in the Russian department of Grinnell College and incoming PhD student in plant pathology at Cornell University, whose research is geared toward international agricultural development and smallholders' responses to land reform law. In addition to laboratory science, he focuses on pasture reform in the post-Soviet context, and the impacts of law on transhumant tradition and smallholder livelihood.

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