Dynamics of grazing rights and their impact on mobile cattle herders in Bhutan

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Seasonal cattle movements have been an important part of the living cultural heritage in Bhutan for centuries. Herders migrate south every winter to graze their cattle on subtropical pastures and to work in orange orchards. They return north to their villages in spring to grow summer crops. However, the practice of transhumant agropastoralism is under increasing pressure on account of changes in land-use policies, climate change and a declining labour force as youth seek alternative livelihoods. This research investigated the impact of changes in land-use policy, with emphasis on the Land Act 2007, on current and future livelihoods of transhumant herders in Bhutan. During in-depth interviews with 24 transhumant herders and nine livestock advisors, and seven focus-group discussions with 64 participants including herders, downstream residents and development agency personnel, perspectives on this issue were gathered. Findings revealed a lack of herder awareness of changes in land-use policies and minimal consultation of herders during policy development. Confusion and uncertainty about the proposed redistribution of grazing rights and restrictions on herd movements have resulted in confusion and resentment and have created conflicts between upstream and downstream communities. Herders with no current alternatives are concerned about their future livelihoods, whereas others are leaving it to their children to decide their future. It is concluded that the motive behind nationalisation of rangeland is noble and timely, but there are flaws in the redistribution plan. Transhumant agropastoralism is already in decline and there is no need to push towards its end through legislation. Transhumant practices could be left to evolve towards what may be their natural end. Sudden stoppage of inter-district transhumance without offering meaningful alternatives to herders could result in negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts. In future, policy development needs to increasingly embrace science and be based on evidence. A genuine participatory process with citizen engagement could avoid the unintended negative impacts likely to be faced by transhumant herders with marginal land holdings, who depend on this production system for their livelihoods.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-104
Number of pages8
JournalRangeland Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017


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