More recently there has been the recognition of a complex relationship between pastoral farmers in the developing world and the size of their herds
The author of the paper on which this case study is based is: Yonten Nyima, Sichuan University, China
Appeared in: Area: Volume 46, Issue 2
Reference: Nyima, Y. (2014) A larger herd size as a symbol of wealth? The fallacy of the cattle complex theory in Tibetan pastoralism, Area 46:2, p186-193
It is important for local, national and international policymakers to understand pastoralism in the particular development contexts (socio-economic, cultural and environmental) in which the pastoralists live rather than make assumptions based on “universal” theories such as the ‘cattle complex theory’. In order to better understand development issues we may need to understand the place of these farmers more firmly in the market system and not allow their poor economic status to be automatically and causatively linked to the observance of a particular cultural tradition.
Melville Herskovits, writing in 1926, made some observations of pastoral farming which for much of the twentieth century went unchallenged. The ‘Cattle Complex’ he described, offers the well-documented idea that East African pastoralists primarily raise large herds due to their symbolic social and cultural value rather than their economic worth, which makes pastoralists reluctant to sell their cattle. Herskovits argued that raising large herds was somewhat “irrational” because raising larger herds could lead to environmental problems associated with overgrazing and sometimes, according to capitalist logic, it would be in the pastoralists’ best economic interests to sell some of the cattle.
More recently there has been the recognition of a much more complex relationship between pastoral farmers in the developing world and the size of their herds (McCabe, 2004). While it may be true that there appears to be a reluctance among South East African pastoralists to sell their cattle in the open market (Mtetwa, 1978), the reasons for this are more economic in motivation than one might expect and in studying pastoral farming one sees various dynamics, such as sustainability and standard of living indices, associated with the wider development geography picture played out.
Eighty seven percent of Tibetans are pastoralists (NPSB, 2011) whom for the most part shepherd yaks, sheep, goats and horses. The dry and rocky Tibetan landscape makes pastoralism highly labour-intensive, something which has a direct effect on the herd size farmers are able to sustain. In the Nagchu Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region, China, it is common for pastoralists to aspire to having a larger herd size in a similar manner to that experienced in Eastern and Southern Africa. Chinese policymakers have concluded that Tibetan pastoralists raise larger herds because they consider larger herds to be a symbol of wealth. Therefore the concept of ‘cattle complex’ is central to state policy on pastoralism. However, although Tibetan pastoralists do desire larger herds, this is far from irrational. Research undertaken with pastoralists in Tibet has shown that pastoralists’ motivations for keeping larger herds do not follow the logic of the ‘cattle complex theory’. Reasons for keeping larger herds are related to improving the pastoralists’ standard of living.
Interviews with Tibetan pastoralists in Nagchu revealed three factors which had a direct impact upon the size of Tibetan pastoralists’ herds. Firstly, the biological growth times of individual animals means that the number of animals within a herd and the number available for market were two different values, so a larger herd size would mean that at any one time, more animals would of an age mature enough to be sold on. Secondly, pastoralists saw a large herd size as more secure when faced with unpredictable geographical phenomena, particularly extreme weather events. For example the Tibetan snowstorms of 1989-1990 caused forty four percent of all Tibetan pastoral animals to perish with those farmers who had the largest herds able to restock and recover from the event more quickly (Goldstein et al, 1990). Some pastoralists compared the security of keeping a larger herd to the security a salary brings to a contracted worker compared to the weekly incomes of one working flexibly.
The final factor that the researchers found determined herd size was the economic goals of the individual pastoralists and their desire to improve their standard of living. While those with the fewest animals were often forced to sell them in order to cover their basic human needs, those with larger herd sizes were able to enjoy a better standard of living because they could invest in relative luxuries, such as healthcare, higher quality housing, more meat and milk as well as education for all their children. In this way we see the dynamics of pastoral farming as having a direct link to the level of both current and future economic development experienced by individual families.
The factors seen at play in Tibet can almost certainly be explored in other developing countries. It is important for us to consider developing world pastoralists in their complexity as they are vital players within the development debate. Patronising views that see pastoralists as ‘stuck’ in “irrational” cultural norms do great disservice to the complex processes and variables that these farmers juggle in order to make a living and provide economic security for their families. It is important for local, national and international policymakers to understand pastoralism in the particular development contexts (socio-economic, cultural and environmental) in which the pastoralists live rather than make assumptions based on “universal” theories such as the ‘cattle complex theory’. In order to better understand development issues we may need to understand the place of these farmers more firmly in the market system and not allow their poor economic status to be automatically and causatively linked to the observance of a particular cultural tradition.
Goldstein, M. Beall, C. and Cincotta, R. (1990) Traditional nomadic pastoralism and ecological conservation on Tibet’s Northern Plateau, National Geographic Research 6, p139-156
Herskovits, M. (1926) The cattle complex in East Africa, American Anthropologist 28, p361-388
McCabe, T. (2004) Cattle bring us to our enemies: Turkana ecology, politics and raiding in a disequilibrium system, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI
Mtetwa, R. (1978) Myth or reality: the ‘cattle complex’ in South East Africa, with special reference to Rhodesia, Zambezia 6, p23-35
NPSB (2011) Nagchu Prefecture statistical yearbook 2010, Nagchu Prefectural Statistics Bureau, Nagchu TAR
A concept that refers to standard of living or the quality of life of a human population.
Farming that produces livestock for meat, milk, wool, hide and other animal products.
Students can be given the opportunity to discuss the different challenges faced by pastoral farmers in the UK and those in Tibet. An interview with a local farmer might be possible and students can contrast how different aspects of development affect their lives.
Some research into the lives of Maasai pastoralists could be undertaken and the cultural value they place on cattle in particular. Students can also research the economic status of the Maasai and how most modern day Maasai make a livelihood. Ultimately, students can explore whether herd size and wealth are in any way linked for modern day Maasai.
Thinking of pastoral farming as a system with inputs, processes and outputs, students can draw a flow diagram for pastoralists in Tibet with all of the different factors listed in the appropriate section. Students can then give ‘traffic light’ colouring to each of the factors, red signifying significant risks, orange signifying moderate or occasional risks and green no risk. Students can then make a summary of why pastoral farmers in Tibet tend to occupy the lower end of the development scale.
Yonten’s original article
China to subsidise herdsmen to curb overgrazing, China Daily
From “overstocking” to “overgrazing”: more livestock as a symbol of wealth? Geography Directions
Foot and Mouth disease
Feeding the 9 billion
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