How do government policies affect pastoralists in Asia?

A new paper by Michele Nori explores the policy landscape for pastoralists in Central Asia, China and South Asia. (For other posts in this series, read about the papers on Sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia and North Africa, and Europe.)

From Russian Siberia, to the Hindu Kush, to Indian drylands, the Asian continent is home to large and diverse pastoral territories and communities. Significant numbers of people rely on rangelands and pastoralism for their livelihoods.

As in other parts of the world, experiences for pastoralists have been very different from country to country. The attempts to modernise agricultural systems, either through the Socialist revolutions or the capital-intensive ‘Green Revolution’, have generated significant and varied forms of uncertainty for most rural communities.

On the move in Gujarat, India. Photo: Natasha Maru

Despite varying experiences and policy agendas, there are some common trends. Policies in many areas have tended towards dismantling pastoral resource management, aiming to stabilise and sedentarise herding communities. Dispossession, dislocation and marginalisation are widespread. But within this overall picture, there are different historical trajectories, both in the way that States have acted and in how pastoralists have been able to respond. Likewise, possibilities for the future are varied from place to place.

Pastoral economies are being integrated more and more into global markets. Remote and isolated mountain regions, desert areas, and highlands have become parts of the global economic and political arena. Incorporation into State- and market-driven dynamics has rarely been favourable to pastoral communities struggling to adapt to the shifting uncertainties across the continent.

Central Asia

During the twentieth century, most pastoral populations in central Asia were incorporated into the Socialist economies of the Soviet Union and Communist China. The foundations of pastoralists’ institutional frameworks have been deeply challenged; land, labour, and livestock were collectivised and their management largely centralised.

Initially in the Soviet system, collectivisation in State livestock farms was also associated with sedentarisation. After the second World War, States became more tolerant of herders moving their animals to graze natural pastures when and where possible, as herders’ knowledge and skills proved more effective than those of professional scientists.

After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, almost everywhere livestock have been de-collectivised and transferred to family ownership and control. However, arrangements for pastoralists and rangelands evolved in diverse ways, as each country transitioned in its own way to a market economy. Large irrigation systems and transport networks broke down, but transnational trade has remained vibrant.

In most post-Soviet countries, the State today plays a minor role in regulating or assisting agriculture and rural development, and pastoralists are engaging in domestic and regional trade in a relatively liberalised market environment.

In general, long-distance mobility and seasonal transhumance is now mostly available to large livestock owners, rather than poorer pastoral households. Some pastoralists have adapted by pooling community labour, while others have diversified their income through other agricultural work, mining or other jobs further afield: their income has fed back into local herds and labour, and intensified pressure on some landscapes.


The situation in China is different to that in the post-Soviet Central Asian countries. Herding communities still face the uncertainties generated by a centralised institutional setting that aims to manage land, people and livestock through evolving legislative measures, public subsidies, and investment schemes.

Peripheral pastoral areas in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet hold strategic importance for regional watershed management, due to their implications for agricultural production in mainland river plains. Pastoral livestock grazing was unsurprisingly identified as the main driver of range degradation processes; the consequent policies basically aimed at reducing the overall grazing pressure by expelling pastoralists from parts of their traditional territories.

This has been especially the case on the Tibetan plateau, as this represents a strategic environmental asset for China’s primary rivers and the entire regional ecology and economy. Accordingly, the plateau has become the focus of important government policies aimed at forms of ecological re-engineering that carry significant implications on the living and working conditions of local communities.

Amdo Tibet. Photo: Palden Tsering

A series of centralised reforms and policies have aimed to reconfigure pastoral territories, and have affected pastoralists’ abilities to respond to uncertainty. However, these have not been implemented in a uniform way from place to place.

Pastoralists, as well as local authorities and officers, have responded innovatively to centrally-designed reforms and policies. In doing so, they have shown considerable resilience, maintaining forms of community governance, combining hybrid mixes of land tenure arrangements, and preserving rangeland conditions while also accounting for economic and climatic changes.

South Asia

In South Asia the situation differs from the rest of Asia in terms of historical path and political paradigms. Long transhumance and cross-border mobility in South Asia have been limited by the political turmoil affecting the region, such as the tensions between India, Pakistan, and China and the longstanding conflict in Afghanistan.

Large-scale infrastructure schemes and input-based forms of development have been important pillars of the Green Revolution, which aimed at increasing and stabilising productivity and settling people in southern Asia’s drylands. The overall impact on herding communities has been one of dispossession, dislocation, and widespread marginalisation. Pastoralists have had to find means of incorporation into other economic domains and production landscapes, adapting their mobility, pastoral practices and livelihood patterns.

Raika herders in Rajasthan. Photo: Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

Now, India and Pakistan are moving away from a post-colonial perspective and legislation, where pastures are managed by foresters and herding communities are classified among tribal groups.

Pastoralists have often been ignored and neglected, and perceived as problematic agents, in the Indian State’s developmental or environmental agendas. However, recent evolutions of the policy environment and institutional framework seem to provide better recognition of pastoralists as stakeholders, agents and citizens.

Whether, when and to what extent this recognition will have material effects remains an open question, as many pastoralists still remain socially and culturally marginalised.

Challenging visions of pastoralism

Across these varied trajectories and histories, the dismantling of pastoral resource management has always been presented as a prerequisite for modernisation.

Under socialist planning, market-centred approaches or State-led investments, experts, planners, and officials shared the same principles on rangeland development. More recent environmental discourses, whereby priority is given to fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity, evolve along the same lines.

Pastoral communities are rarely invited to participate in policy planning and societal debates, even though their lives, land, and livestock are often the primary focus of development programmes and modernisation strategies. Addressing this marginalisation would require States across the region to involve them in decision making, and to consider their rights, needs and agency.

Read the paper

Assessing the policy framework in pastoral areas of Asia
Working Paper, EUI RSC PP, 2022/04, Global Governance Programme
by Michele Nori

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