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Competing forms of knowledge in Kyrgyzstan: inter-generational debates over the pastoral economy

Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix

This study uses ethnographic methods and archival research to investigate how different generations make and use competing kinds of knowledge about pastoralism in Kyrgyzstan. How do forms of knowledge such as Soviet science, Kyrgyz nomadic ‘tradition’ and new ideas of sustainability interact or conflict? The question of pastoral knowledge is particularly salient in Kyrgyzstan, where national identity (defined as ethnically Kyrgyz, despite the multi-ethnic constitution of the population) invokes the nomadic past, and where livestock is the backbone of the subsistence economy for the majority of the population. Centring on conflicting assessments of pasture conditions, where state and development actors assert grave degradations that herders often negate, the debate over the future of pastoralism reflects where Kyrgyz pasture users and institutions see themselves belong, and what kinds of knowledge are trusted, practiced and inform Kyrgyzstan’s economic base. What dynamics can we detect in making and remaking pastures, territories and homelands? In a situation where the political and economic future of Kyrgyzstan is highly contested, how do actors negotiate conflicting ideas of order, entitlement and a good life? Government and development policy-makers attempting to direct the rural economy are frequently younger than the farmers they seek to influence. How does this fact affect their interaction? How do elders negotiate and put to work these very different kinds of environmental knowledge? How do their own forms of knowledge translate into, or conflict with other forms of authority?
Although the demographic crisis looming in Europe has provoked a keen interest in the once neglected social category of age, most studies of ageing deal solely with European and North American populations. A study of elders in Central Asia speaks to the need for a wider framework in considering alternative models of ageing and knowledge transmission.
Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan offers a particularly compelling field for reflecting on ageing and knowledge practices because it has a highly literate rural population and a long-standing history of government interest in modernizing agriculture, while the political system and scientific approach driving these innovations contrast markedly. The Soviet Union offered an alternative model of modernity to ‘the West’, a modernity that is now often looked back on as a second ‘tradition’. This study asks in how far current knowledge-making practices are influenced by experiences in the Soviet empire.
As Central Asia is increasingly drawn into transnational networks of knowledge-making, this study investigates how knowledge and power travel. In the Kyrgyzstani context these travels are influenced by high levels of population mobility (both between the countryside, cities, and abroad) and new actors such as World Bank programmes concerned with sustainability and knowledge transfer. This project uses a concrete example to analyse the interaction between scholarly, policy-oriented and everyday, experience-led forms of knowledge. As conflicts over herding practices are by no means restricted to Kyrgyzstan, this study illuminates regional parallels to debates around pastoralist practices in the Middle East, North- and East Africa as well as Europe. mit Weidewirtschaft und Ökologie sich nicht nur auf Kirgisien beschränken, bietet die Untersuchung aufschlussreiche Parallelen und Unterschiede zu ähnlichen Debatten im Mittleren Osten, Nord- und Ostafrika wie auch Europa.