Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Why Do Herders Insist on Otor? Maintaining Mobility in Inner Mongolia

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Why Do Herders Insist on Otor? Maintaining Mobility in Inner Mongolia

Article excerpt


Otor is a traditional mobility strategy developed by Mongolian herders to cope with their highly variable and uncertain environment. The Livestock and Rangeland Double-Contract Responsibility System (LRDCRS) implemented in pastoral Inner Mongolia (People's Republic of China during the mid-1980s) has encouraged a settled mode of livestock husbandry within a delimited household rangeland area, depending primarily on fenced pastures. Practical results from the past 20 years indicate that this settled pattern can not completely replace the traditional herd mobility strategy that was anticipated by LRDCRS. A case study from a village in Xilingol Prefecture in Inner Mongolia explores the reasons why herders insist on otor. The paper evaluates the impact of changes in rangeland tenure and social relationships brought by LRDCRS on the herders' ability to access key resources in adverse weather. It is found that otor movement provides herders with the means to maintain livestock husbandry in highly variable and uncertain arid and semi-arid environments. Rangeland semi-privatization results in a loss of de facto guarantee of access to key resources. Faced with barriers to accessing resources, reciprocal bonds are weakened for conducting otor. As a result both sustainable pastoral livelihoods and sustainable use of rangelands are doomed to suffer.

Keywords: Pastoralism, livestock, rangeland, policy, mobility, Inner Mongolia


The Livestock and Rangeland Double-Contract Responsibility System (LRDCRS) was implemented in pastoral Inner Mongolia in the early 1980s, and accordingly all collective rangelands and livestock were distributed to individual herder households. This privatization policy was initiated to create the so-called 'clear rangeland tenure' such that individual herder households would have exclusive rights to a certain rangeland area for their livestock production. The LRDCRS was expected to increase livestock productivity as well as to control rangeland degradation by establishing fixed and exclusive resource boundaries (Li 2007). However, recent research in the Mongolian steppe (Banks 2001, Ho 2001, Williams 2001, Li 2007) shows that the delimitation of small rangeland areas does not match the requirements of animal husbandry in a highly variable and uncertain arid and semi-arid rangeland environment. It is apparent that less herd mobility results from rangeland fragmentation and fencing, which are key factors in both rangeland degradation and herders' poverty (Humphrey and Sneath 1996). In reality, as adverse conditions have an impact on contracted rangeland herder households, they need temporarily to move their livestock out of the assigned boundaries so as to access better rangeland elsewhere. This is a traditional herding strategy called otor in Mongolian (Sneath 2000, Ge and Wu 2004) that represents herders' need for flexible physical and social boundaries. The need for otor is inconsistent with the requirement of LRDCRS, but a necessity in many rangeland environments.

The logic for the LRDCRS policy is mainly twofold. First, the policy implies that having exclusive use rights of an area of rangeland will encourage herders to use it sustainably, because fights-holders are provided with an expectation of security. In order to achieve this exclusive use right, a fixed and physically clear boundary of the contracted rangeland is needed to ensure both benefits and costs associated with the rights of rangeland are attached to the particular herding unit. The assumption is that the resources a herder conserves today will be available for him/her in the future.

The second implication of the LRDCRS policy is that, under the urge to modernize from the late 1970s, Chinese policy-makers (Liu 2004, Ni 2005) and experts (Wang and Chen 2003, Li 2005) considered traditionally mobile pastoral systems to be backward. In their opinion, nomadic pastoral economies depend wholly on nature, and these economies are not only prone to collapse by being limited to the patchy environment, but are also harmful to rangeland conservation by using resources in a simplistic way, without technological inputs. …

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