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A systems approach for inclusive rangeland tenure practices in Uzbekistan

A systemic approach to rangeland tenure and inclusive rangeland management plans adapted to local conditions are required to properly address land degradation and loss of income for rural dryland communities in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek herder riding horse in rangeland pasture. Photo: ICARDA/M. Shaumarov

Rangelands in Central Asia are the largest continuous area of grazed land in the world. They are a critical resource of  livelihood for pastoral and agro-pastoral communities, and play an important role in absorbing carbon, which is key to reducing the negative effects of climate change. However, when affected by land degradation, rangelands play the reverse by releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Post-Soviet transformations have not been easy in Central Asia, and institutional reform challenges coupled with unsustainable land management practices have led to the gradual degradation of many rangelands in Uzbekistan, one of the main dryland countries in the region. This in turn has affected the livelihood of many rural dryland-farming communities by significantly limiting their income generating activities.

A new study on rangeland tenure in Uzbekistan indicates that current pasture land use practices are concentrated around rural community areas, while remote rangelands are underutilized due to obsolete water infrastructure and high transaction costs. Thus, uneven land management practices is leading to unsustainable use of resources in the long run.

As a first step towards implementing better rangeland management policies in Central Asia, scientists from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in collaboration with local research partners are currently conducting a rangeland tenure study in the Aral Sea region of Karakalpakstan to develop relevant policy recommendations that will help address land degradation in this area. The study focuses on analysing the current rangeland tenure system and access issues faced by pastoral communities under changing rangeland regulations and tenure. 

So far, research indicates that current pasture land use is concentrated around rural community areas, while remote rangelands are underutilized due to obsolete water infrastructure and high transaction costs. Thus, uneven land management practices is likely to affect the sustainable use of limited resources in the long run. For herders and livestock owners, access to the vast semi desert pastoral lands is linked to much uncertainty and anxiety.

For example, smallholder livestock owners in Karakalpakstan are only officially allowed to graze their animals free around villages, while the vast rangelands are reserved for the animals of the pastoral Karakul sheep cooperatives, locally known as Shirkat. Each pastoral cooperative covers an area of at least 200,000 ha. While the small pasture areas around the farmhouses and water sources are heavily overgrazed, large parts of the rangelands designated to the pastoral cooperatives are underused. This is because, often, the water wells found in these rangelands are out of operation. They lay neglected because their maintenance is costly, which in turn makes ranglenace inaccesible for grazing animals. Only twenty (20) the existing seventy (70) water sources are operational as water wells on the grazing land owned by the Shirkat.

If smallholder farmers want to get access to the other, more productive pastoral land further away, they must officially reqest to lease the land from the state and pay land taxes, which pose a constraint  on their limited income sources. To avoid these constraints, smallholder farmers choose  - in most of the cases - to either lend their animals seasonally to the shirkat herder(s) or work as shirkat herders themselves. The later option enables them to get access to the pastoral land for their individually-owned animals.

Matazim, a young smallholder agro-pastoralist explains the situation as follows:

“I haven’t seen anybody from the community who would rent pastoral land from the Shirkat. All people are more likely to work as a shepherd or to arrange their own sheep with a shepherd. It would be better if the Shirkat would distribute the land among the farmers, so that all family members can be involved as laborers on their own land...”

By law, shirkats cannot sub-lease pastures directly to the smallholders. Decisions on land leasing and pasture allocation are taken by the local administration. Therefore, large livestock owners with 600 heads of sheep or more can get access to the vast rangelands of the shirkat through contractual arrangements with the state and the shirkat itself. However, unofficial pasture lease arrangements do take place between the shirkats and smallholder farmers in exchange for water well maintenance services provided by the latter. But rangeland access under such arrangments can be risky and not always guaranteed. Ahmad, a wealthy agro-pastoralist owning 800 head of Karakul sheep, 100 goats and 10 herding horses has repaired 20 wells in the territory of the Shirkat. For each well repaired, he spent UZS 30 Million or the equivalent of 11,500 USD, only to have access taken away shortly after.

“I rented 20,000 ha of pastures unofficially from Shirkat. These were marginal areas with old broken wells, which had to be repaired so that I could get access to the rangelands. I had to repair 20 wells, which was a very difficult and costly thing to do as they were up to 70 m deep and we couldn’t find anybody courageous enough to go down and repair them. Once I repaired the wells, the Shirkat claimed large parts of these rangelands from me,” said Ahmad.

In other cases, the shepherds are not informed about the exact delineation of land now belonging to the forestry department and land belonging to the shirkat. This ambiguity further complicates the question of who has access to forests pastures during winter time for animals belonging to the shirkat and the private agro-pastoralists.

The first research results indicate that the current rangeland tenure system does not reflect the tenure access and security needs of smallholders and large agro-pastoralists. As a general rule, it would be possible for smallholders and large agro-pastoralists to have access to larger pasture areas but they usually don’t do it as it is very time consuming and costly. This situation negatively affects the livelihoods of pastoralists and exacerbates rangeland degradation.

Another important insight stemming from this piece of research on rangeland tenure in Uzbekistan points to the huge financial losses and rising external costs associated with rangeland degradation, impacting both the vulnerable agro-pastoral communities and the government.

It is estimated that the costs of land degradation in Uzbekistan have a three percent (3%) share of the national GDP and that most of these costs are related with shifts from grasslands to lower value lands.

The challenge ahead - for scientists studying the issue of rangeland degradation together with the communities of smallholders, local administration, cooperatives and policy makers in Uzbekistan – will be to use the scientific findings to develop and adopt a systemic approach to rangeland tenure and use of inclusive and locally adapted rangeland management practices with the proper incentives.


This research is conducted in the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems in Central Asia under the Pastoral and Agro-pastoral Systems Flagship and supported by the CGIAR Fund Donors.

About the authors

Dr. Jutta Werner is a Scientist for Rangeland Management and Rangeland Ecosystem Services.

Dr. Makhmud Shaumarov is a Scientific Field Coordinator of Central Asia and the Caucasus Regional Program.

Research Paper

Mirzabaev, A., Ahmed, M., Werner, J., Pender, J., & Louhaichi, M. (2015). Rangelands of Central Asia: challenges and opportunities. Journal of Arid Land, doi, 10, 2.