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Chapter I - Introduction

Temperate Asia has vast areas of grazing lands, which, as well as being important environmentally, provide livelihoods for herders. Both transhumant and agropastoral systems are common and involve both full-time nomads and settled farmers who take their stock to summer pastures. While some of these systems have been studied previously in detail, there is a general lack of knowledge, particularly of many of the transhumant systems. Since the mid-1990s, FAO has been supporting the production of a series of case studies, mostly on transhumant systems, which have generated a series of reports. The quality and interest of these reports are such that they merit a wider readership, so they have been brought together in book form.

Some definitions are in order:

Two main zones and a subzone can be distinguished in the study area:

Thus there are two main parts. The most northerly is the cold, semi-arid zone embracing part of the Eurasian steppe, that great arc of grazing land which runs from Manchuria to the eastern boundaries of Hungary. It is bounded on its north by the taiga (the swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes) and the cold mountain masses of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Pamir, Tien Shan and Kunlun. There are, of course, transhumant grazing systems north of the taiga, based mainly on reindeer, and indeed their southern tip is in Mongolia, but these are not dealt with here.

The other great area of transhumant herding is in the mountain masses of the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region (referred to hereafter as Himalaya for brevity), where the temperate zone is defined by altitude and the winter end of many transhumance systems is in the subtropical foothills or plains. The area is bounded to the south by the limit of subtropical vegetation; the altitude of this decreases progressively from our most southerly country, Bhutan, along the northwesterly progression of the Himalaya. In Nepal, the limit of temperate vegetation - the “mountain region” in contrast to the tropical and subtropical “hills” - is about 2 000 m; by the time the Indus is reached, the oak and olive forests are down below 1 000 m. The latitude range is from a little over 50°N in northern Mongolia to about 27°N in Nepal and Bhutan.

The cold semi-arid zone includes Mongolia, north China, the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, Buryatia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. There winter shelter is a necessary grazing resource and a major survival strategy is to have the herd fat enough in autumn to survive through winter and spring. In much of this area, grazing lands are either steppe or at least much less precipitous than those of the Himalayan zone, and horses are used for herding as well as being kept for meat and milk. Mixed herds are the rule, involving large and small ruminants, horses and often camels. Herders have little interaction with crop producers since there is little farming and crops are limited to favoured, often irrigated, sites. Winter camps are in relatively cold areas and do not usually have access to alternative sources of employment or sources of bought fodder. Herders’ diets are very much based on animal products, meat as well as dairy produce, and cereals are a very minor food in most of the herding area.

In the Himalayan zone, transhumance patterns are vertical, going up to mountain pastures in summer and descending to relatively warm areas in the foothills, plains or desert fringe in winter. This travel pattern, as well as following feed availability, avoids both the great summer heat of the lowlands and the winter cold. The transition routes and summer pastures are often very steep, if not precipitous. Winter grazing is often close to arable and urban areas that provide sources of seasonal employment, the possibility to buy fodder and access to markets.

Throughout the Himalayan area there is considerable interaction between herders and settled farmers. Herds have to traverse settled areas during their migrations, and meet local stock on the summer pastures. Crop residues and stubble grazing are part of the winter feed and are paid for in cash or kind; cereals and sometimes fodder are purchased in winter. Horses are relatively unimportant, although ponies may be used for transport. Herds are usually much less mixed than in northern areas, and groups usually specialize in types of stock. The western Himalaya and the Hindu Kush are generally areas of low precipitation, and small stock form the major part of transhumant flocks, although Gujars take cattle and buffalo to mountain pastures in Pakistan and western India. In the much wetter eastern Himalaya, large ruminants predominate. Herders’ diets are generally based on cereals, purchased with the proceeds of livestock sales, and on dairy products.

The yak-rearing subzone is not treated in detail in the text, apart from the very interesting Soe Yaksa study from Bhutan. The subzone covers a large area, but yak numbers are not well defined, partly because they interbreed with cattle, with which they are often included in livestock counts. Yaks form a major part of the livestock in both the northern and southern parts in cooler areas at higher altitude. They are present in most of the countries of temperate Asia, from Afghanistan eastwards, but in the western Himalaya yaks are very few and only found in some extremely mountainous places. They become much more important in the eastern Himalaya, and the greatest number of yaks in the world are on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Mongolia also has quite a large yak population. Air temperature is a major factor determining yak distribution. According to Cai Li and Weiner (1995), yaks thrive provided that the mean annual temperature is under 5°C and the mean temperature of the warmest month does not exceed 13°C. Temperature is strongly influenced by altitude. In Tibet, yaks live normally up to about 5 500 m, but can be used as pack animals up to 7 200 m; further north, in Mongolia, they come down to 2 000-2 500 m.

Extensive pastures, be they exploited by transhumant or sedentary herds, have many uses other than as a source of feed for livestock, and are of great environmental importance. They are usually important hydrologic catchment areas, and are important as wildlife habitat, for the in situ conservation of plant and other genetic resources, and are frequently used for sport and tourism. This makes the apparent neglect of their management all the more surprising. While poor grazing management is probably by far the most serious cause of damage to the natural vegetation, collection of medicinal plants, uprooting shrubs for fuelwood, and uncontrolled felling all play a part.

The great mass of mountains formed by the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau and the adjacent Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tian Shan ranges is the source of most of the rivers of China, as well as the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, and the Indus and Ganges systems. Afghanistan’s agriculture is mainly dependent on irrigation from its rivers, and the Amu and Syr flow north into the Aral Sea. From the case studies and general observation, it is clear that the vegetation of the upper catchments of these rivers is under severe pressure and is often seriously degraded. This decreases infiltration and speeds up runoff, thereby increasing flooding. It will also increase the silt load, with consequent damage and cost to agriculture and structures far downstream. The primary means of reducing such damage is the rational management of grazing and forest resources.

The problems of mountains and mountain communities have been a subject of concern for some time. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and deals with both the temperate and subtropical zones. Such is the importance given internationally to mountains that the United Nations declared 2002 to be the International Year of Mountains (IYM). Mountains, in this context, include uplands, be they steep or not, and most of temperate Asia’s grazing, plateaus and steppes, as well as true mountains, are at relatively high altitude, so the studies described in the following chapters are highly relevant to “Mountain Development”.

FIGURE 1.1. Map showing the study areas in temperate Asia and the two main zones of transhumant herding.


Data subsetted from ESRI’s World Worldsat Color Shaded Relief Image. Based on 1996 NOAA weather satellite images, with enhanced shaded relief imagery and ocean floor relief data (bathymetry) to provide a land and undersea topographic view. ESRI Data and Maps 1999 Volume 1. Projection = Geographic (Lat/Long)

FAO Disclaimer

The designations employed and the presentation of the material in the maps do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of FAO concerning the legal or constitutional status of any country, territory or sea area, or concerning the delimitation of frontiers.

The production systems studied vary from the purely livestock systems of the steppe to those where farmers in mountain valleys take or send their stock to alpine pastures in summer, and from situations where herders are the majority of the population to others where they are minority groups that have to move through the lands of others or through state-controlled forests during part of their migration.

The common features throughout are that transhumant systems are used and that their major part is in areas of temperate vegetation. Transhumance is also loosely defined: often it is defined as a system of pastoralism wherein livestock are moved between mountain pastures in summer and lower areas for the rest of the year. That is the common pattern in most of the region, but in the steppe and mountain-and-steppe the choice of winter camps is based on shelter from wind and relative freedom from snow, and some summer movements may be dictated by the need to avoid biting insects.

Some authorities use the term transhumance when herders have a permanent home: only the herds and the people necessary to tend them travel, as opposed to nomadism, when the whole family lives in tents all the year round, moving with the herds. For our purpose, any system where livestock move over considerable distances to seek grazing, in set seasonal patterns, is considered to be transhumance - whether by full-time nomads or by stock owners with settled homes. A novel system is described from western Bhutan, where in the nothoue system there is a partnership agreement in rearing migratory cattle, whereby the herds are looked after by different groups at different seasons, i.e. the herds migrate between two sets of herders - the people stay put.

In parts of the area, especially in the eastern Himalaya, two or more transhumance systems may overlap on the same land but at different seasons. Cases are reported from Bhutan and Nepal where three lots are involved: yak graze in winter on the summer pastures of cattle and hybrids, while the winter grazing areas of the cattle and hybrids is the summer pasture of buffaloes that overwinter yet lower down.

Transhumant herding is not the only system of grazing management throughout the region. In some parts, especially in the Himalayan zone, there are many settled communities with mixed farming systems involving livestock. These frequently interact with, and may be in conflict with, transhumant graziers. Settled systems are mentioned where they affect the transhumance under discussion, but no attempt is made to describe or discuss in detail the many and varied settled production systems.

Sedentary livestock production systems, usually combined with cropping, have received a good deal of attention in the Himalayan zone. An International Symposium on Livestock in Mountain Livelihoods, jointly funded by ICIMOD, FAO, the International Potato Centre (CIP) and the System-wide Livestock Programme (SLIP), was held in Pokhara, Nepal, in December 1999 as part of the preparations for the International Year of Mountains. The proceedings of the Symposium (Tulachan et al., 2000) mainly deal with the more densely populated agricultural and agropastoral tracts, especially insofar as the Himalaya is concerned. The emphasis is on livestock and economics, with only passing reference to the pasture component. A joint ICIMOD-FAO study prepared for the Symposium - Livestock in farming systems of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (Tulachan and Neupane, 1999) - gives details on livestock systems and trends. In settled systems there is a move towards intensification and an increase in the proportion of buffaloes and goats, while sheep are decreasing.

Many types of livestock are involved: sheep and goats are almost universal, and cattle occur in most systems; yak and their hybrids graze areas too cold for cattle; and in Bhutan, mithun (Bos gaurus) are part of the stock. Horses and mounted herding are the rule in the steppe and adjacent areas. Camels are important throughout the drier areas as transport and are the major livestock in the driest areas. In China, central and northern Asia the Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) is kept; from Afghanistan through the western Himalaya the Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius) is used. Water buffalo are common in the lower parts of the Himalayan transhumance areas, and some are managed in transhumant systems.

Since the aim of grazing systems is livestock production, the animal aspects of the systems are dealt with in enough detail to make the study clear. Some of these stock may be unfamiliar to readers from other zones: the yak, and its hybrids, is important in all the subzones (although in the western Himalaya it is limited to a few very high peripheral areas); yaks and yak husbandry and that of hybrids are described in detail in another FAO publication (Cai Li and Weiner, 1995).

Over the past decade the FAO Grassland Group has encouraged studies on the grazing lands of the region. Some of the studies were through a subregional working group, which coordinates collaboration between national pasture specialists. The Pasture and Fodder Working Group for Temperate Asia [members to date: Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan] was established in 1995 and covers a wide ecological zone where animal husbandry is important. In the Himalayan region, livestock production systems in the semi-arid and alpine areas are not independent of the lower moister areas. Other studies in China and Mongolia have been supported by the Grassland Group. The studies generated a series of reports and their quality and interest is such that they merit a wider readership, so they have now been brought together in book form.

Morrison (2000a), in discussing the Himalayan studies at the meeting of the Temperate Asia Pasture and Fodder Working Group, stated:

In the Himalaya the high altitude systems - at elevations above 2 500 m to 5 000 m - embrace the entirely migratory sheep/goat systems found in Pakistan and India which graze alpine pasture in summer, the yak and yak hybrid systems which use alpine and subalpine range in the northern Areas of Pakistan, Ladakh in India, the northern parts of Nepal and Bhutan. Transhumance, the annual migration from lower to summer grazing in alpine areas, is the common feature of these systems. These entirely pastoral systems overlap with high altitude agropastoral systems that graze mainly subalpine pastures.... Pastoralists are skilled at exploiting these grazing resources and appreciate rangeland plants - those of value and undesirable ones. But these systems are essentially exploitive. The migratory systems have fascinated people and there are many general descriptions of migratory routes, but there have been few systematic studies of the dynamics and present status of such systems. Although ‘improvement’ and ‘improved range management’ are suggested, there is no clear definition of appropriate improvement practices or opportunities for their effective application. The systems studies conducted within the Working Group addressed some of these issues.

The studies, from their origin, emphasize the technical, “grassland”, aspects of transhumant systems, but recognize that socio-economic, ethnological and land tenure factors are fundamental to the organization and improvement of grazing management and the livelihoods of herding families. The studies have proved very useful to the institutions involved since they provided an opportunity to become familiar with the system-wide problem of extensive grazing, whereas previously they had often concentrated on “technical” problems.

While the studies reported were partly funded by FAO, the subsidies were very modest indeed and the work has been carried out mostly by the efforts of the national institutions and staff concerned - often under isolated and difficult conditions and with a minimum of equipment and no accommodation. Taking even basic equipment to high, steep pastures, far from motorable tracks, requires a lot of effort and organizing - transporting fencing and exclosure cages by pack animals and porterage, sometimes up to nearly 5 000 m, is very difficult. On at least one site, researchers suffered from altitude sickness.

Recently a series of “Country pasture/forage resources profiles” was initiated and is available on the FAO Web site. To date (autumn 2002), profiles are available, in the region, for Afghanistan (Thieme, 2000), Armenia (Tumanian, 2001), Azerbaijan (Kosayev, 2002), Bhutan (Kinzang Wangdi, 2002), China (Hu Zizhi and Zhang Degang, 2001 - summarized here in Chapter V), India (Misri, 1999), Kyrgyzstan (Fitzherbert, 2000), Mongolia (Suttie, 2000b), Nepal (Pariyar, 1999), Pakistan (Dost, 1999), Turkey (Karagoz, 2001) and Uzbekistan (Makhmudovic, 2002).

Over the past decade FAO has paid particular attention to the socio-economic problems of herding in temperate Asia, especially Central Asia, where extraordinary social changes in herding communities have been brought about by the abandonment of collective production for private ownership of livestock, and social patterns based on centrally planned systems had to give way, almost instantly, to a free-market driven existence. An FAO-sponsored International Conference on herding was held in Mongolia in 1990, which identified many of the problems as well as fields for study. A summary document was produced - Trends in Pastoral Development in Central Asia (FAO, 1996) - which gives a good picture of the situation immediately post-decollectivization, but many changes have taken place since, and few to the herders’ advantage. Another study on Mongolian herders’ income and employment (FAO, 1992b) gives a more detailed study at national level of the very early post-decollectivization years.

A round-table discussion was held in 1992 at Shah e Kurd, Islamic Republic of Iran, in conjunction with the International Conference on Nomadism and Development, which was organized by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FAO, 1992a). At the opening of the meeting, problems mentioned by the Minister included drift of herders to the towns; dependence of herding communities on urban markets; nationalization of grazing lands leading to unclear access rights; poor access of herders to services; and the need to re-establish the ecological balance between the grazing land and the livestock.

The local definition of nomadic people is those:

Most of that definition was thought applicable throughout the region, although the “tribal” proviso was problematical. There were two other points of general application:

This present publication aims to consolidate the results of FAO pasture work from the past decade in temperate Asia, and to make it available to a wider readership by bringing together the results of a series of studies on transhumant grazing systems. It attempts to put the studies in a framework of the overall pastoral situation, using information from country profiles and the editors’ experience in the field. Studies on transhumant production systems are reported from Bhutan, China, India, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan. Two articles on subjects closely related to transhumance are included: one on haymaking by pastoralists in Mongolia and the other on breeding cold-tolerant lucerne for a scheme that integrates irrigated hay with transhumant stock rearing in Xinjiang, China.

The studies are grouped into four zones: Central Asia, which includes parts of northern Asia; China; the western Himalaya; and the eastern Himalaya. To put the studies in context, there are also chapters giving a brief introduction to each subregion and brief notes on the main countries where there is transhumant stock rearing. A whole section is devoted to a concise description of China’s pastoral and forage sector, one of the greatest and most varied in the world. A final chapter discusses the findings of the studies, the problems they raise and areas for action or further study.

Other recent Grassland Group Publications on related topics include those on Hay and Straw Conservation (Suttie, 2000a), Grassland Resource Assessment (Harris, 2001), Silage in the Tropics (t’Mannetje, 2000), Managing Mobility in African Grasslands (in conjunction with Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics and IT publications) (Niamir-Fuller, 1999), and a comic book for children on Discovering the natural resources of the Hindu Kush - Himalayan region (FAO, 2002).

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