Southern Kyrgyzstan, photo: Erica Manning
Historically, the vast majority of the world's cashmere has come from Mongolia and China. In recent decades, the rapidly increased production of this fiber has contributed to land overuse and land desertification in the region, the negative climate effects of which are felt even along the west coast of the United States.
Native goats to Kyrgyzstan - referred to as 'jaidiri', meaning local goat; photo: June Cashmere
Goats aren't innately bad to the land if managed properly; total animal numbers (including goats, sheep, cows, and any other animals being grazed) need to be kept in proportion to the size and topography of the area of land being grazed.
Traditional grazing methods understood the importance of numbers in an animal pack. In Mongolia and China, however, as demand for cashmere products meant increased value for cashmere, there was a radical and purposeful increase in the number of goats owned and grazed as a means toward increased revenue. Unfortunately, as the size of herds increased significantly they began to outstrip the pasture areas readily available to shepherds. In addition, broader environmental changes (such as drought) have contributed to a situation where increasing desertification has taken place. We are glad to see, however, that efforts are now being made in these regions to try to reverse these practices (See for example, "How sustainable cashmere is reversing land degradation in Mongolia", United Nations Development Programme Blog).
Kyrgyz shepherd with sheep and goats, photo: June Cashmere
What about Kyrgyzstan? Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan are a bit different. First, the general population of goats and animal herds is much smaller--for example families own on average 10-15 goats. Also, as the cashmere industry develops in Kyrgyzstan, it has the chance to incorporate what has been learned from the experience of China and Mongolia. Kyrgyzstan has pasture committees whose purpose is to help maintain balance in the pastures, and there are local NGOs working alongside them to promote the preservation of the land. There remain many challenges and complexities amidst the communities in the task of managing pasture land, but we are glad to see that these entities are present and seeking to help mitigate them.
From the outset, we have focused our work with shepherds to increase the quality of their fiber, paying shepherds on a tiered payment system that rewards quality of fiber. We stress quality, not quantity. The goat is the least expensive animal for a family to own, so our project helps the poorest of families earn extra income. That said, we tend to see a downward trend of goat ownership. As shepherds gain wealth, their tendency is not to buy more goats, but to purchase larger animals.
With the advent of our new processing facility in Kyrgyzstan, we hope to contribute towards the broader elevation of the cashmere industry in Kyrgyzstan. We intend to use our platform to reinforce the messaging from others on the ground and actively encourage healthy land use. As we continue to grow, we have the opportunity to influence and affirm best practices with the aspiration of helping prevent the undesirable outcomes of unchecked growth that have been experienced in China and Mongolia. Our company recognizes that this is an important issue in our pursuit of producing cashmere yarn that is sustainable, ethical, and transparently made.