Feature Story

Restoring land productivity in Kazakhstan's small villages

February 28, 2017

Through the GEF's Small Grants Programme, a project in Kazakhstan assisted local farmers with reestablishment of traditional agricultual practices lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. The project, called the Shiyen Public Fund, established a number of important initiatives. First, villagers were able to combine their cattle and hire professional shepherds to herd them to distant pasture areas. Second, with project support, local experts have trained the villagers on traditional methods of seasonal pasture management to sustain the productivity of the pasturelands and hayfields. Finally, beekeeping was introduced as part of the project. Villagers now supplement their income from selling honey, and bees aid the growth of sainfoin and crops around it through pollination.

As the world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan possesses a diversity of natural landscapes, including vast mountain ranges and steppes where semi-nomadic people living in pastoral villages bring their cattle to graze. Seasonal pastoral practices, a mainstay in the village of Shiyen during the Soviet era, fell to the wayside with its collapse. This led to overgrazing, erosion, and desertification of pasturelands near the village. Eventually, the reduced value of Shiyen’s underfed livestock translated to negative impacts on the local economy.

During the Soviet era, seasonal rotation of distant pastures was a collectively organized practice. Shepherds gave their pastures a recovery period by rotating their grazing areas, herding cattle and other livestock to lowlands in spring and mountain foothills in summer. The state also financed and maintained necessary infrastructure, including water wells, and schools for training shepherds in practices such as crop seasonality and grazing routes. However, state-funded support ended once the Soviet Union was dissolved: wells on distant pastures were left unmaintained, and shepherd schools were shuttered. Lacking the knowledge and infrastructure for seasonal grazing methods, villagers chose to let their livestock graze close to home, eventually leading to widespread land degradation.

The GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) helped reverse this situation through the creation of Public Fund “Shiyen.” This local organization received approximately USD $50,000 in funding from the GEF SGP in 2012 to implement a project with the aim of restoring seasonal pasturing methods and increasing local incomes. This ensures that the local villagers who will benefit when the land’s productivity is restored will also act as its stewards in the years to come.

The GEF SGP project complemented a previous project supported by the United Nations Development Program and the German International Cooperation (GIZ), that restored wells as a source of water during springtime, and provided satellite phones and yurts (mobile houses) with solar panels that ease the villagers’ nomadic lifestyle.

Beekeeping was integrated into seasonal pasture management as part of the Shiyen SGP project. In addition to providing villagers with a secondary source of income, bees pollinate sainfoin and other crops, benefitting the ecosystem at large.

Pasture rotation allows the soil to regain its fertility and productivity for the next grazing season. To recover degraded lands near Shiyen, 125 hectares of sainfoin were sown. Sainfoin, a member of the legume family, has special root-nodules which allow it to fix nitrogen and recover soil fertility. Additionally, sainfoin provides a superb forage for grazing animals.


Through the project, a 1.1-kilometer pipeline was laid out to make a natural spring more accessible as a water source for sheep during summer.

This article was written in collaboration with Olga Romanova, GEF SGP Kazakhstan. Photos by Patrizia Cocca/Olga Romanova.