Nomadic pastoralism in Kyrgyzstan: preserving traditions and food culture

By DevelopmentAid (Ana Benoliel Coutinho)

Cultural diversity allows traditions to be preserved as well as creating a more closely-knit society that is allowed to retain its idiosyncrasies. Food traditions play a crucial role in this process as they unite people and also allow them to develop food systems that are appropriate to their cultural identity, a fact that is acknowledged and promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) through agroecology. In an exclusive interview with DevelopmentAid, Akylbek Rakaev, the Director of the Nomadic Livestock Keepers’ Development Fund in Kyrgyzstan shared how agroecology and FAO’s tools to evaluate this concept help to preserve the pastoralist tradition as well as developing local knowledge in order for nomadic pastoralism to better serve the needs of local people.


Nomadic pastoralism – a proxy for modern regenerative agriculture

Nomadic pastoralism means rearing livestock by cyclically and periodically moving animals from one pasture to another and where the population itself undertakes seasonal movements, sometimes overlapping with ‘transhumance pastoralism’. Although estimates of the total number of nomad pastoralists are frequently inaccurate and often uncertain, according to the FAO, “it is safe to estimate that at least 100 million people depend on nomadic or transhumance production systems worldwide”.


Nomadic pastoralism relies on principles of rotational management also used in agro-silvo-pastoralism which shows high energy and resource efficiency, and hence presents significant economic benefits to the farmer.


See more in Agro-silvo-pastoralism turns land healthy and prevents desertification in Portugal


Nomadic pastoralism as a tradition is still practiced in countries such as Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Kenya to name just a few. The Nomadic Livestock Keepers’ Development Fund (NLKDF) in Kyrgyzstan represents small livestock keepers where “an aggregate share of small-scale family farmers and producers reaches over 95 percent of the total agricultural production.” (FAO, 2019) There are 375,000 small family farms in Kyrgyzstan of which about 80% keep animals in small farmsteads and about 50% are directly or indirectly related to nomadic livestock raising.


Training for producers and summer schools for children to learn about food culture and nomadic pastoralism are some of the projects the Fund has undertaken. It actively promotes local traditions in food systems seeing this as necessary for economic, social and environmental sustainability. “Kyrgyz livestock production survives only due to nomadic pastoralism because it is the cheapest and most ecologically sound approach, representing a long-standing tradition,” emphasizes Akylbek.


Culture and food traditions: FAO element of agroecology

The work of the NLKDF lies at the intersection of three pillars: the strengthening of small family farms, improving the governance of the land and natural resources in agriculture and fisheries and fostering agroecology.


Akylbek emphasizes that since 2008 the Fund has been involved in the agroecology movement and it helps its producers “to reflect on their practices” to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their methods of production and, most importantly, ways to improve. Piloted by the FAO, the Tool for Agroecology Performance Evaluation (TAPE) was recently introduced to assist producers in their endeavour “to understand where the boundaries of contact between agroecology and nomadic animal husbandry are, where we can mutually enrich ourselves and where we can learn from experience,” notes Akylbek. TAPE was implemented with assistance from Schola Campesina which has been providing knowledge and guidance on agroecology to NLKDF since 2014.


Culture and food traditions and the sharing of knowledge are two of the 10 FAO elements of agroecology:


Cultural identity and sense of place are often closely tied to landscapes and food systems. As people and ecosystems have evolved together, cultural practices and indigenous and traditional knowledge offer a wealth of experience that can inspire agroecological solutions.” (FAO)


Since new technologies are costly and modern agritech requires additional investments, small family farms rely mainly on their own financing to fund production. Additionally, technology offers one size-fits all solution that to a certain extent devalues the inherent characteristics of local culture. Diversity, on the other hand, is perceived as a strength both ecologically and socially and members of the Fund seek ways to improve their own production by learning firstly from their ancestors.


We analyse whether this or that technology is culturally appropriate for us but also if it is affordable, so that it doesn’t become a burden for family. We encourage our producers to look back at their grandparents, learn from them by reflecting on their experience: How did they work? What is useful for us? What can we learn from them? How can we build on that and diversify?” explains Akylbek.


He points out that the legacy of knowledge is only one piece of the puzzle. This needs to be put in the context of environmental risks and climate change that are already affecting people in the mountains’ fragile ecosystems. Akylbek underlines: “TAPE helped us to see which difficulties we might face, our vulnerabilities and to identify our reserves for growth.”


Akylbek added that combining the results from TAPE and the current reality “denuded the problems” of local pastoralists and food growers by helping them to better understand agroecology and its relevance in nomadic pastoralism as well as organizing the accumulated knowledge both for them and for decision makers. Step 3 of TAPE involves participatory interpretation of the results which fosters more meetings and productive discussions that are crucial for the co-creation of knowledge. “These meetings are very important for us. We think together and seek solutions among us, the food producers, and then we invite decision makers to see how we can help develop better policies for agriculture,” explains Akylbek.


Biodiversity is one of the areas in need of improvement. Akylbek points out that producers have identified opportunities to increase not only the diversity of animals and crops but also a diversity of economic activities.


Prospects for the future


The Fund is currently working on a self-financed project – a demo plot which follows agroecological principles e.g., synergy, resource efficiency, circularity (see more in Defining agroecology: a broad term and yet a very concrete set of farming principles). This will demonstrate how a food grower can produce healthy, nutritious and chemical-free food with smaller investments. It will also provide a study centre for students and other stakeholders thus expanding knowledge about pastoralism and agroecology throughout the country. Faithful to their strong sense of culture and traditions, Akylbek underlines the human-centered approach in their work: “It turns out that first of all it is the person and the environment, and then products and exports. For this reason, we strive to nourish the will to work the land and to make it pleasurable. We try to build the sense of land stewardship and for producers to feel empowered.” concludes Akylbek.


NLKDF is a member of the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty (IPC) and represented the interests of the nomads of Central Asia in the Civil Society Mechanism for the Committee for Food Security, UN (CSM4CFS) from 2012-2016. It also provides a platform that offers Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land, Fisheries and Forests in Central Asia and CIS.

Photo credit: Akylbek Rakaev

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