Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Observations on Changes in Kazak Pastoral Use in Two Townships in Western China: A Loss of Traditions

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Observations on Changes in Kazak Pastoral Use in Two Townships in Western China: A Loss of Traditions

Article excerpt


We provide observations regarding changes in pastoral use within two Kazak areas in the People's Republic of China to illustrate how very different pastoral use can be in similar areas within the same cultural group. The first area is Jianshe Township of Aksai Kazak Autonomous County, in western Gansu Province. The second area is Kurti Township in Fuyun County, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In both townships, livestock production from extensive rangelands was the primary economic activity. Our main reason for examining rangeland issues arose from a general view among county officials that overgrazing was threatening rangeland sustainability. Kazak pastoralists were traditional users in the study areas, at least for most of the twentieth century. By the time of our study, the largely Kazak-owned herds in Jianshe had given way to a Han majority, and traditional pastoral practices had been largely replaced by inexperienced contract herders who originated from other regions of China. The change to contract herders with little livestock experience may be a serious threat to sustainable grazing management as traditional ecological knowledge has been lost. In Kurti Township, Kazaks have maintained more traditional movement of livestock, with some herders moving 400 km between winter and summer pastures. However, even in this area the traditional Kazak pastoral culture is threatened from both within (Kazaks themselves) and from outside (policies from Beijing) by attempts to settle herders. In this township, agriculture has become important along rivers, herders are securing rights over irrigated lands to produce hay crops, and many complain of the long distances between pastures and want to become settled.

Keywords: China, conversion, degradation, Gansu, indigenous knowledge, Kazaks, migration, pastoralists, sedentarisation, Xinjiang


China has one of the largest rangeland areas of the world with about 400 million ha classified as rangeland, predominantly in western China (National Resource Council 1992: 9). (1) Nomadic pastoralists, now classified as minority nationalities, historically grazed livestock in these rangelands. The political, social and economic changes in the twentieth century dramatically altered relations among people, land and livestock. This has led a number of researchers and many official Chinese documents to express concerns regarding land degradation in western China (National Research Council 1992, Ho 2000, Huang 2000, Ho 2001, U.S. Embassy 2002, Zhang et al. 2002, Zhang and Gao 2004, Sheehy, In Press), with the main causes of degradation generally attributed to overgrazing (2) and conversion of rangelands to croplands.

The extent and degree of environmental damage is still in debate; however, there is little doubt that western China is rapidly changing and the future of habitat for wildlife and possibly for semi-nomadic pastoralism is gravely threatened. We have worked on a number of biodiversity/wildlife projects in China since 1991. These projects have involved areas used by various pastoral minority groups including Mongolians, Tibetans, Kazaks and Yugurs. (3) This article discusses pastoral land use in two Kazak townships that illustrate different land use changes in western China. These Kazak areas were sites of interest because of their wildlife and biodiversity resources.

Our concerns are directed toward ensuring wildlife populations and biodiversity values of these western rangelands; however, a key aspect in providing for these values is the development and/or revival of a pastoral culture that maintains livestock in an extensive system where forage remains for wild ungulates. As such, current land use policies that will continue to have an impact on pastoral use in much of China are also examined here. Schwarzwalder et al. (2004: 29) conclude that additional field research is needed to show the variety of land tenure arrangements currently employed in grasslands throughout China. …

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