Shrinking pastoral spaces



THE wider Himalayan Arc consisting of mountain ranges that incorporate major mountain systems such as the Tien Shan, Pamir, Hindukush, Karakoram, Himalaya and Kun Lun Shan Mountains, the latter enclosing the Tibetan Plateau is ecologically a very diverse mountainous region with peaks and plateaux. Steep mountain slopes and deeply incised valleys, glaciated areas above the snow lines, deserts and steppes, forests, rangelands and wetlands compose a region that offers limited space for mountain communities to settle in compact oases and vast areas for extensive forms of pastoral practices. The latter is widely congruent at its higher elevations with the distribution of the yak and its hybrids, indicator species for complex forms of pastoralism (Figure 1). Sheep and goats dominate as marketable livestock species in lower elevations.

Mountain ranges often contain little oases for irrigated cultivation compared to partially more than half of its entire surface that can be utilized for one or the other form of animal husbandry. Consequently, it is not surprising that due to seasonal variation in fodder availability long- and short-ranging mobility has been part of human adaptation over centuries by utilizing and maintaining natural resources in a sustainable manner.

The romantic vision of free-ranging nomads that have been avoiding settled and governed areas probably never existed although state evasion and freedom from exploitation and expropriation has often been their goal.1 Pastoral communities were as much dependent on their settled neighbours for supplies of grain and other commodities as cities and villages were markets for animal products and demanding transport services from mobile communities. Their inter-linkages with regional potentates and rulers, consumers and customers left certain spaces for flexible responses to changing power structures.

Figure 1: The wider Himalayan Arc consists of several mountain systems that are the region of yak breeding and keeping.


Source: Hermann Kreutzmann 2012, p. 3.

The advent of colonial powers in the Himalayan Arc resulted in a multilateral contest that led to designated spheres of influence and finally to the demarcation of imperial boundaries and regional borders. When delineated boundaries became efficient geopolitical instruments of state control in border-lands, it significantly affected the mobility range for pastoral communities and led to shrinking pastoral spaces.

Prominent examples are the restricted movement of Afghan nomads across the Durand Line, separating nowadays Afghanistan from Pakistan, on their way from the summer pastures in the Hindukush heights to the Indus Valley during winters.2 The Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan significantly affected the seasonal migration of Bakerwal pastoralists across the line of control.3 Many other examples are known from the Pamirs where border closures hindered pastoralists, traders, and pilgrims to cross from Russia into China or Afghanistan, or in recent years between newly independent Central Asian Republics.4 Salt caravans from the Tibetan Plateau provided for centuries the valuable commodity to Himalayan communities, but were refrained to cross from Tibet into Nepal after China’s conquest by enforced boundaries.5 

Nevertheless, shrinking pastoral spaces occurred not only by interrupting migration routes, regulations and control contributed as much as the forces of settlement expansion and modernization strategies. The 20th century is characterized by infrastructure development, cultivation of formerly pristine lands, destroying of forests and revaluation of natural assets, population and settlement growth. Archaic forms of extensive forms of pastoral practices found their anti-thesis in the spirit of modernization and technological progress. The promotors of modernization and resource exploitation supported a ‘modern’ mobile society, but termed classical forms of mobility as outdated, backward and refutable.

Technology-driven mobility as individual motor traffic and recreational travel, frequent changes of residence as part of social mobility and flexible professionalism represented the modern lifestyle, while herd mobility as part of the livelihoods in pastoral communities represented and were stigmatized as ‘traditional’, socio-economically stagnant and less productive agricultural practices.

Underlying is an old and well known cultural conflict between mobile and resident communities, which seem to be mutually suspicious about the behaviour and lifestyles of the other. Thus, the shrinking of pastoral spaces is as much a spatial phenomenon focusing on area and distance as it is a political, socio-cultural and development theory-inspired process that has accelerated programmes of sedentarisation and settlement of mobile communities in most countries. The culmination of this process might be the so-called final settlement of all nomads in the People’s Republic of China during the last decade.6 

My discussion about a ‘tragedy of responsibility’ will exemplify the process that has occurred in the rangelands and pastoral areas of the wider Himalayan Arc in the framework of social and climate change. Why should it be appropriate to label a development process as ‘tragedy’ and why such an adverse designation could and would be connected with ‘responsibility’?

In my attempt the notion of ‘tragedy’ appears in relation to pasture resources as a two-fold feature. First, the tragedy occurs in the guise of state neglect and ignorance. When social and climate crises affect endangered lands and marginalized people often no or insufficient responsibility by state authorities or the like is extended to benefit vulnerable communities or to mitigate their risk exposure. Such events could be droughts, earthquakes, floods and landslides, but as well political turmoil, revolutions and/or civil war. Second, one could term active external interventions as a tragedy when state authorities interfere in the affairs of communities without any participation by the affected and concerned persons in decision-making about their future.

Pastures and rangelands represent the largest extensively utilized space in mountain regions and highland steppes of Central and South Asia. The perceived challenge of combining socio-economic modernization with ecological sustainability has led to severe forms of intervention and forceful interference with long-lasting effects in recent years. Policy makers try to combine both strategies in their development plans for nomads and pastoral people. Entitlement and sustainability are two dominant aspects that are shaping human-environmental relations in the fields of water, pasture and forests.

Spatial control and neoliberal conquests have been driving agents for the creation of permanent settlements for former nomads. This ideology-driven approach aimed ‘... at reducing flexibility in favour of concentration and rootedness. Modernization theory translated into development practice captured all elements of pastoral life and tried to optimize breeding techniques, pasture utilization, transport of animals and products, and related processing concepts to increase the value of livestock products’.7

The antagonism shines up in the meeting of the mobile and the settled. Both ascriptions refer to prevalent dichotomies: tradition and modernity, weak and powerful, rural and urban, the slow and the fast mover. In mountain terminology it was captured in the highland-lowland antagonism. It originates in embedded suspicion against mobile people by settled communities. The opposition between mobile and settled often disguises fundamental differences in the perception of what decision-makers think development should look like and should achieve. In the following I shall focus on the modernization of traditional practices and tendencies to preserve modernization as a key concept of development.

Modernization theory seems to be a common denominator crossing ideological borders during the Cold War, during which capitalist development experts and communist central planners aimed at changing people’s lifestyles to attain higher levels of production and welfare. Nomadism was one of their main targets; settling of nomads was a powerful symbol and visible attestation that change had taken place. The results are well known to us; the more surprising is the fact that old blueprints have been reanimated as we shall see below.

The settling of nomads resulted in an early version of land grabbing, expropriation of inherited resource access and resource conversion, albeit it took place mainly within the boundaries of nation states and promoted input-demanding forms of agriculture in order to increase material output. For example, collectivization in its Soviet and Chinese interpreations and expressions has significantly altered and shaped Central Asian pastoral practices. The conversion of pastures into arable land has caused one of the most significant environmental impacts of land degradation on Earth. In the Kazakh steppe, for example, 25 million hectares of pastures were converted into arable land within a span of only seven years. The subsequent process of degradation is mostly irreversible; half of this land has fallen fallow in the meantime. Arable land was not expected to revert to pasture again.

The Kazakh example is a good case in point because, first, collectivisation initiated an exodus of millions of Kazakh nomads and inflicted heavy losses of life; groups of Kazakhs escaped to Xinjiang and tried to cross the Himalayas; only a few arrived in India. After a long migration across the Kun Lun Shan and Himalayas a small group of Kazakh survivors arrived in Ladakh and Kashmir in 1942; several thousand settled in Kashmir, Hyderabad and Bhopal.8 

Similar processes took place south and east of the Soviet realm with varied expressions and changing efficiency. Pastoralists were ‘developed’ into farmers. From Afghanistan to Bhutan, modernization strategies have resulted in shrinking numbers of pastoralists and numerous programmes and packages to modernize agriculture since the last quarter of the 20th century.9 Input-driven forms of development aimed to increase productivity. In both areas perceptions of modernization did not differ significantly. The process of settlement continued, and in the true spirit of modernization theory the convergence of lifestyles was envisaged, meaning the settling down of all people.

In Afghanistan, processes of renomadization are observed despite the high prevalence of landmines. Investors who seek a profit from mobile animal husbandry have taken the risk despite continuing and even growing insecurity and poor governance.10 The passing of a new pasture law seems to lead the civil path despite of all kinds of growing insecurities.

In post-Soviet societies, various kinds of adaptation strategies have been employed and pastoral practices have encountered a privatization drive. In recent years new land and pasture laws have changed the rules and regulations in the relationship between the state as proprietor of land and pastoral users.11 So-called new breeders have emerged to use the available opportunities given.

In South Asian countries the adaptation and modification of their colonial legacies in pasture and forest legislation is discussed and leading the way to the challenges posed by climate change adaptation and international conventions on nature protection. Pastoralists are among rural dwellers who remain grossly neglected. Their marginalization and neglect became again obvious when the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development published their ‘Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’ in 2019.12

Mountain pastoralists are more or less absent on the 627 pages, which reflects their political position and social marginalization. As stake-holders and actors, they are often deprived of any rights and entitlements. On the other hand, they would and need to play an important role as landscape managers in climate-change-related transformations. Shrinking spaces for pastoralism are often the result of abandoning customary rules in favour of state interference under the pretext of nature protection and afforestation.13 Pastoralists are losing their local markets as food production is shifting away from rural areas.

The Chinese government is taking a proactive role in interfering in all dimensions of pastoral practices. After collectivization and deregulation, leading to the household responsibility system, a new approach has been followed. The present holistic Chinese state intervention justifies being termed as a renaissance of state dirigisme and modernization pragmatism if it had ever been dead. The straightforward and solitary approach to changing rural livelihoods in pastoral areas involves significant financial contributions and professional support from affluent coastal areas of China and is centrally planned.14

A decade ago, the announcement by former Prime Minister Weng Jiabao of the ‘Twelfth Five-year-plan for the project of sedentarization of nomads within China’ seemed to be the final verdict on settling the remaining pastoralists in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang and adjacent areas. The
key concept is strongly linked to resettlement schemes that put the aspect of mobile versus settled in the forefront. The detailed regulations have wider implications regarding the reduction of the number of individuals active in pastoralism, the application of ‘modern’ techniques in animal breeding and health, the introduction of sophisticated pasture management through fencing, the introduction of economies of scale in herd management and marketing of livestock products. Consequently, townships are planned and built – in great style – as the nuclear cell of ‘resettlement schemes’.

The justification for such a severe move is from a rationale that identifies an ecological crisis as the prime driver and draws on the convergence principle in modernization theory. An alleged degradation of pastures provides the pretext for intervention to secure a valuable societal resource. In this perception pastoralists are picked as the culprits responsible for overgrazing and they would need to be controlled.15 In China, the active planning process is aiming at a reduction of the use of natural pastures as a source of forage. International conventions on ecological protection, environment and development are quoted; compensation schemes such as payment for ecosystem services are being experimented with.

The second line of argument is just as important, as here the Chinese authorities take responsibility for raising the social status of pastoralists. This is implemented by advocating geographical and social mobility. Settling the pastoralists in townships, as well as the introduction of centralized and regulated livestock-breeding with less manpower, means that pastoralists and their children lose their livelihoods and are expected to take up other occupations.



The regional expressions introduced for non-Chinese High Asia have in common that we are observing a depopulation of the pastoral periphery while people are being concentrated in urban settlements. Fieldwork experiences from the Himalayan range of India, Nepal and Bhutan tell us that migrants stem from the remotest locations; in some villages nearly every household was linked to a migration scheme that could extend as far as to Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Europe. The Pamirian Mountains are devoid of a young pastoral work-force, as are other regions in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Talking about lack of responsibility is a double-edged issue. Up to the 1950s, pastoral areas were niches of evasion as James Scott has shown so prominently in his book on the ‘art of not being governed’.16 Researchers’ sympathy for the periphery has transformed into administrators’ greed. Bureaucrats have penetrated as far as the limits of the nation states, border-lands have been incorporated into mainstream societies, and spaces for evasion are shrinking tremendously. We have seen the attention that post-revolution China has directed towards its pastoral communities during the past 65 years. China has a legacy of top-down interventions accompanied by all kinds of legislation, incentive packages and modernization programmes. But what have the neighbours done?

India and Pakistan have inherited rangeland management policies as a colonial legacy. Both started designing a national rangeland management policy rather late, as a side effect  of new forest legislation. Their common point of reference was the ‘Cattle Trespassers Act’ of 1871 and the ‘Forest Policy’ of 1894. In Pakistan a ‘National Rangeland Policy’ has been announced; a decision about the draft is still pending. India envisaged a paradigm shift with the ‘National Forest Policy’ (1988), in which range-lands played an important role, followed by the 2006 ‘National Environmental Policy’. In both countries livestock production is supposed to be intensified to meet growing market demands in an arena of decreasing rangeland availability. Both are apparently failing to cope with the challenges. Similar statements could be made for Nepal. Only Bhutan nationalized its rangelands, made pastoralists – who are assumed to constitute a tenth of Bhutan’s population – mainstream actors and made them eligible users within the framework of the 2007 ‘New Land Act of Bhutan’.17

In Afghanistan laws related to pasture management seem to have survived at least on paper. The ‘Pasture Law’ of 1970 codified the property rights of the government. The latest amendment was decreed under the Taliban in 2000. Currently the pasture law is being redrafted under the guidance of international agencies to incorporate community-based pasture management systems. But the provisions of 1970 remain the official policy to date with little effect on pastoral practices and interferences by powerful actors.18 



A process of transition from state-owned property rights to leasehold and private and/or community-based pasture rights characterizes the situation in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Kyrgyzstan recently introduced a new law on pastures, while Tajikistan has been following suit.19  Both countries acknowledge the importance of utilizing the natural potential; the so-called ‘new breeders’ are making ample use of their opportunities.

This brief characterization of policies and plans reveals a varied set of attitudes towards the management of the pastoral commons within the ‘modernization’ ideology. The ‘tragedy of responsibility’ comes in different disguises. The designs of national policies are quite different and mainly governed by national agendas and international pressure. Whether they might be an adequate and appropriate instrument to address the challenges the livelihoods of pastoralists are undergoing remains unanswered here.

Modernization theory is alive and has always been alive; only its disguises and expressions have changed over time! Its inbuilt contradiction with true sustainability concepts is often neglected or just ignored. The central paradigm of modernization requires keeping the promise of convergence of lifestyles on an elevated level. All technological attempts to reduce the overexploitation of natural resources, to adapt to the requirements of a growing world population and to mitigate effects
of global warming have not changed the direction and pattern of ‘development’. Considering limited resource availability, various scenarios have shown the finitude of certain commodities. The debates on ‘peak oil’ or ‘peak water’ are among those but could be crucial ones. Under the premise of sustainability other forms of resource utilization might be required to avoid another ‘tragedy of responsibility’.



1. See James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New Haven; Hermann Kreutzmann, ‘Boundary-Making as a Strategy for Risk Reduction in Conflict-Prone Spaces’, in Detlef Mueller-Mahn (ed.), The Spatial Dimension of Risk: How Geography Shapes the Emergence of Riskscapes. Routledge, Milton Park, 2013, pp. 154-171; Hermann Kreutzmann, ‘Pamirs at the Crossroads’, in Jelle Wouters & Michael Heneise (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Highland Asia. Routledge, Milton Park, 2022, pp. 116-128.

2. Richard Tapper, ‘Who are the Kuchi? Nomad Self-Identities in Afghanistan’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, 2008, pp. 97-116.

3. Aparna Rao and Michael Casimir, ‘Vertical Control in the Western Himalaya: Some Notes on the Pastoral Ecology of the Nomadic Bakrwal of Jammu and Kashmir’, Mountain Research and Development 5(3), 1985, pp. 221-232.

4. Hermann Kreutzmann, Pamirian Crossroads: Kirghiz and Wakhi of High Asia. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 2015.

5. Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, Himalayan Traders: Life in Highland Nepal. J. Murray, London, 1975.

6. Hermann Kreutzmann (ed.), Pastoral Practices in High Asia: Agency of Development Effected by Modernisation, Resettlement and Transformation. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012; Hermann Kreutzmann. ‘The Tragedy of Responsibility in High Asia. Modernizing Traditional Pastoral Practices and Preserving Modernist Worldviews’, Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 3(7), 2013, p. 11.

7. Hermann Kreutzmann and Stefan Schuette, ‘Contested Commons – Multiple Insecurities of Pastoralists in North-Eastern Afghanistan’, Erdkunde 65(2), 2011, pp. 99-119.

8. See India Office Library & Records: Departmental Papers: Political & Secret Internal Files & Collections 1931-1947 – Collection 24: Northern Frontier: IOL/P&S/12/3302: Northern Frontier. Kazaks (08.06.1942-21.12.1945).

9. Kuenga Namgay, Joanne Millar, Rosemary Black and Tashi Samdup, ‘Transhumant Agro-Pastoralism in Bhutan: Exploring Contemporary Practices and Socio-Cultural Traditions’, Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 3(13), 2013, p. 26; Liz Alden Wily, ‘The Battle Over Pastures: The Hidden War of Afghanistan’, Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 133, 2013, pp. 95-114.

10. Stefan Schuette, ‘Pastoralism, Power and Politics: Access to Pastures in Northern Afghanistan’, in Hermann Kreutzmann (ed.), Pastoral Practices in High Asia: Agency of ‘Development’ Effected by Modernisation, Resettlement and Transformation. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012, pp. 53-69.

11. Andrei Doerre, ‘Promises and Realities of Community-Based Pasture Management Approaches: Observations from Kyrgyzstan’, Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 5(15), 2015; Tobias Kraudzun, ‘Livelihoods of the “New Livestock Breeders” in the Eastern Pamirs of Tajikistan’, in Hermann Kreutzmann (ed.), Pastoral Practices in High Asia: Agency of ‘Development’ Effected by Modernisation, Resettlement and Transformation. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012, pp. 89-107; Hermann Kreutzmann and Teiji Watanabe (eds.), Mapping Transition in the Pamirs. Changing Human-Environmental Landscapes. Springer, Cham, 2016.

12. Philippus Wester, Arabinda Mishra, Aditi Mukherji and Arun B. Shrestha (eds.), The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Springer, Cham, 2019.

13. See for Nepal Popular Gentle and Rik Thwaites, ‘Transhumant Pastoralism in the Context of Socioeconomic and Climate Change in the Mountains of Nepal’, Mountain Research and Development 36(2), 2016, pp. 173-183.

14. For Tibet see an overview in Andreas Gruschke and Ingo Breuer (eds.), Tibetan Pastoralists and Development: Negotiating the Future of Grassland Livelihoods. Reichert, Wiesbaden, 2017; Dennis P. Sheehy, Daniel Miller and Douglas A. Johnson, ‘Transformation of Traditional Pastoral Livestock Systems on the Tibetan Steppe’, Sécheresse 17(1-2), 2006, pp. 142-51. Further case studies are found in Gongbuzeren, Lynn Huntsinger and Wen Jun Li, ‘Rebuilding Pastoral Social-Ecological Resilience on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in Response to Changes in Policy, Economics, and Climate’, Ecology and Society 23(2), 20188, pp. 21.

15. See Richard B. Harris, ‘Rangeland Degradation on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau: A Review of the Evidence of its Magnitude
and Causes’, Journal of Arid Environments 74, 2010, pp. 1-12.

16. James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009.

17. Sonam Wangdi and Nawang Norbu, ‘Good Fences are Key to Sustainable Pasture Management and Harmonious Pastoral Society of Merak and Sakteng in Bhutan’, Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice 8(4), 2018, p. 11.

18. Hermann Kreutzmann and Stefan Schuette, ‘Contested Commons – Multiple Insecurities of Pastoralists in North-Eastern Afghanistan’, Erdkunde 65(2), 2011, pp. 99-119.

19. Andrei Dörre, ‘Common Pool Resources, Collaborative Action, and Local Knowledge in High Asia’, in Matthias Schmidt, Rune Steenberg, Michael Spies and Hendrik Alff (eds.), Beyond Post-Soviet: Layered Legacies and Transformations in Central Asia. Universitaet Augsburg, Augsburg, 2021, pp. 49-63; Michelle Lim, ‘Laws, Institutions and Transboundary Pasture Management in the High Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountain Ecosystem of Central Asia’, Law, Environment and Development Journal 8(1), 2012, pp. 45-58.