Modes of Subsistence

Modes of Subsistence

Afghans have developed a number of different strategies to wrest a livingfrom their difficult, often marginal environment. Some pastoralist or herdsmengroups live a seasonally nomadic existence although other herding communitiesare sedentary. Often groups combine animal husbandry with agriculture; some relyvery little on livestock. These subsistence patterns are to some extent fluid,pastoralists often changing their degree of reliance on cultivation, dependingon ecological, economic, and political factors.


Afghanistan has fine pastures permitting a considerable portion of itspopulation, perhaps 9 percent, to engage in nomadic pastoralism. This entailsannual migrations with large flocks of sheep and goats from lowland wintersettlements, where they sow and reap crops and live in housing of a fairlypermanent nature, to highland summer pastures located above 1,000 meters;sometimes as high as 3,500 meters. Here they occupy fixed grazing grounds whichthey do not own but on which they have traditional grazing rights. Sometimesthey pay a fee. Other nomadic groups practice various types of trading. Uniquelyadapted to the environment, pastoral nomads help maintain the nation's ecosystemand contribute substantially to the national economy.

Estimates of nomadic populations are even more uncertain than those forsettled populations. The figure of 1.5 million given in many officialpublications in 1996 is an average of 1970 estimates which varied from 800,00 toover 2.5 million. Again the wide range results from differences in definitionand from the fact that changes brought about by displacement and war have yet tobe adequately analyzed. Fully nomadic groups were always rare. Some groups aresemi-nomadic. In their case, a majority of the group moves annually from summerto winter pastures, while fewer remain behind in permanent settlements. Insemi-sedentary groups, a minority participate in the migrations.

Nomadic groups are found among the Pushtun, Baluch, Aimaq, Turkmen, Arab,Uzbek, and Kirghiz; perhaps over 80 percent are Durrani and Ghilzai Pushtun,Within each of these groups, however, the nomads form a minority.

Many differences between groups have been described by leading socialscientists noted in the bibliography. Yet a few patterns may be noted. Duringthe fall and winter, nomadic groups live in permanent or temporary housing onsteppes and plains; in the spring they move to lush pastures in the centralmountains. The big herds that travel along high mountain trails are composedlargely of sheep, including a highly valuable breed called karakul orPersian Lamb, a major export. Only 10-40 percent of the herds are goats becausethe market price for sheep is usually twice that of goats.

The flocks belong to single nuclear families from different segments ofsubtribes and each household will own an average of about 100 animals. Typically4-6 households will join together to form herd units of optimum size consistentwith the labor capacities of individual families and prevailing conditions ofthe pastures. Each herd unit is tended by a shepherd, who is paid a share of thelambs and kids born under his care.

Nuclear households grouped again by tribal segments move along lower routesmore suitable for the heavily laden camels, horses and donkeys carryinghousehold goods, women, children and the elderly. These groups, accompanied bysmaller numbers of animals and guarded by fierce mastiff-like herd dogs, followtraditional routes with little variation, moving only five kilometers or so aday when travelling through grassy regions, but up to 20 kilometers a day whenthe terrain is barren. For some, the migration may be only a matter of a fewkilometers; others move up to 500 kilometers away from their winterheadquarters.

Camp sites seldom include more than 100 single household dwellings; often nomore than five. These portable dwellings are of distinct shapes, includingseveral variants of the classic rectangular black goat's hair tent predominatelyused by Pushtun and Baluch.

The nomads neither move nor live in isolation for they maintain relationshipswith both agriculturalists and merchants to whom they sell pastoral products,mainly live animals, wool, skins and dairy products, in exchange foragricultural produce, primarily cereals, household and luxury items, includingradios. Poorer nomadic families may serve farmers as seasonal labor duringharvest periods while richer nomads who extend credit may acquire land fromfarmers who, unable to pay their debts, become their tenants. Nomads also act asdisseminators of local news. Large-scale trading, money lending and casual laboropportunities are often more important than herding to the eastern Ghilzai whosecaravans once reached deep into India (later Pakistan) as far as what is nowBangladesh, as well as north to Bokhara, east to China, and west to Iran. Thesefar-flung migrations which had taken place since the eleventh century virtuallycame to a halt after the 1930s when the Soviet Union and China sealed theirborders. They experienced further curtailment after Pakistan closed its borderin 1961 during the Pushtunistan dispute.

Internally, the effects of increases in population, modernization, stateinterventions and abnormal climatic conditions causing market prices to fallnecessitated severe adjustments. For many nomads by the end of the 1970s theirsituation deteriorated to such an extent that they were obliged to settle down.The war exacerbated these trends. The indiscriminate dropping of mines fromhelicopters onto pastures is but one example. Despite this, many nomadic groupsacquired significant political power because of their major roles in theresistance, particularly in the transportation of arms. They became one of thebest armed groups in Afghanistan.

This laid the ground for potential tensions over settlement rights in thefuture as evidenced by controversies between nomadic and settled groups thatarose when nomads occupied land around Khost because their traditional movementpatterns had been disrupted. In resolving the issue, the Taliban were obliged tosanction the nomad occupations because of their superior strength.

Other groups have also been forced to abandon their nomadic way of life.Numbers of nomads have purchased shops in provincial centers such as Khost andGardez. A major portion of the Kirghiz have resettled in Turkey. Among nomadicgroups forming part of

refugee populations in Pakistan, few have been able to retain their flocksand the assistance community has been unable to address their special needs.Yet, among the refugees there are a few who have accumulated fabulous riches andlive opulently in elite suburbs of Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi.

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