How pastoralists innovate: stories from the highlands of China | Land Portal

Source: Future Agricultures


Written by:Nathan Oxley

For several years Future Agricultures has worked on pastoralism within African settings. For comparison, this post looks at a case from theTibetan Plateau, where pastoralists are facing similar challenges to those investigated by our Pastoralism theme.

In the last few weeks of 2014, IDS hosted a visiting fellow, Gongbuzeren, a researcher from Tibet who himself grew up in a nomadic community. Gongbuzeren has been researching rangeland management and pastoral development in pastoral regions around Tibet since 2007, with fieldwork in the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai. We asked him a few questions about his emerging findings.

1. The Chinese authorities recently introduced a market-based system of rangeland management in the Tibetan Plateau, which contrasts with some of the existing collective and community-based practices. Why do you think they did this, and what have they done to achieve it?

The pastoral reforms were part of a wider programme. In the late 1980s, China initiated economic reforms to move towards market-based economic development, in order to improve its gross industrial and agricultural output. In the late 1990s, China implemented the ‘Great West Development’ programme. This tried to speed up economic growth through marketisation and modernisation in the west – including the six main pastoral provinces (Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR), Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu).

To integrate the rural pastoral communities in these areas into this larger market-based economic development, China made some rapid institutional reforms in how rangelands were managed, and accompanied these reforms with some centralised market-based policy interventions.

A policy in the early 90s moved the management of rangelands from a community-based system, to being based around household contracts, with individual privatized rangeland user-rights. This was called the Rangeland Household Contract Policy (RHCP). Then, in 2008, China introduced a market-based rangeland transfer system, which aimed to re-aggregate rangeland resources, and promote more optimal animal husbandry.

All of these market-based institutional reforms are underpinned by the belief that the older community-based system – which is based around community collective use of rangelands, with traditionally-inherited customary institutions and cultural norms – is irrational. According to this view, the old system leads to open access and the degradation of rangelands.

Market-based arrangements aim to correct this by ‘re-aggregating’ the household-based rangeland resources and allocating them more efficiently. They also support intensive animal husbandry and a rotational grazing system, which is meant to improve herder livelihoods and promote sustainable rangeland management.

The pastoralists in these areas have taken these reforms and adapted them to find systems that work for them.

2. What alternative models are there among pastoralists in these provinces?

From our fieldwork, an alternative model that we’ve observed is the tradable grazing right system, which we termed the hybrid institutional system. The hybrid system considers both market-based and community customary institutions in rangeland management.

In this system, herders converted the rangeland use-rights into grazing rights, which is determined by the total rangeland use-rights of a household divided by the total number that household owns in each year, so that they can enforce their rights for compensation. But at the same time, they maintain their collective use of rangeland resources so that they can move livestock around in a flexible way.

3. How have local communities adapted to or taken up the market-based reforms?

After these reforms, when the herders saw an increase in the market values of rangeland resources, they wanted to clarify their rights and set up market-based institutional arrangements to distribute their resources. But they didn’t want to lose the community organisation and collective use of rangeland resources. So they set up diverse, hybrid institutional arrangements.

The ‘tradable grazing right system’ is an example of this. The government had promoted rangeland use rights, but the community converted this into a grazing quota to clarify the grazing rights of an individual household. The grazing rights give individual households the right to claim compensation based on their annual grazing quota. At the same time, the herders maintain community customary institutions to enable livestock to be kept mobile.

In this case, customary and market-based institutions interact to form complementary and embedded relations which target different aspects of rangeland management. The constructive interaction between the local government, community and individual households plays a crucial role in developing and maintaining this institutional arrangement.

4. What are the positive and negative outcomes for pastoral communities? What are the ecological outcomes of the reforms?

Our case study compares the economic and ecological outcomes in two pastoral villages in Qinghai Provinces. One village implemented a Rangeland Transfer System based on the Rangeland Household Contract Policy (RHCP) (see question 1). The other village initiated a tradable grazing right system.

We found different results in each village. Both systems increased livestock production costs. But the first village had higher livestock mortality and a lower livestock production level than the second. The second village also had higher household income levels, because the income is comprised of market-based income, consumption-based income and herd-size income. Their income also varied less from year to year.

As for the ecological outcomes: even though the rangeland transfer system facilitates certain livestock movements, those movements are still restricted between individual grazing parcels, with no movement on a larger scale. In addition, the herders who rent in rangelands use it as an opportunity to shift their grazing pressure so that their personal grazing can rest. Therefore, the grazing pressure is more concentrated and higher under the rangeland transfer system than it is to tradable grazing system, and as a result, the level of rangeland fragmentation is higher in the rangeland transfer system.

5. What are the policy spaces for market-based policy and community-based practices to work together in the policy process?

We identified three policy spaces in the implementation processes of market-based institutional arrangements where possible changes could be articulated.

Firstly, clarifying and securing individual rights in rangeland management is important, but this doesn’t mean that community organisations need to be dismantled, or that physical boundaries need to be built between households to clarify the rights. Secondly, there is room for more constructive interaction between local government, community and pastoral households in rangeland management practices. Thirdly, policy processes are contingent and uncertain. So future rangeland management policies should be open to institutional innovations that emerge in the implementation processes, which have better outcomes in actual practice.

(Photo: Gongbuzeren)

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