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Can Crowdfunding Save an Endangered Nomadic Culture?

posted Sep 20, 2014, 10:30 PM by Siamak Ebarhimi   [ updated Sep 20, 2014, 10:30 PM ]
A local man named Ishenbek in Kyrgyzstan (Photo: Rusavia/Wikimedia)

A gray-haired Kyrgyz man swathed in a blue jacket and topped with an Ak-Kalpak — Kyrgyzstan’s national white felt stovetop hat — stands on the edge of a rocky outcrop looking across the hills and steppes of Issyk Kul. An eagle rests on his gloved arm, dutifully watching for prey to catch and bring back to his master. The man’s name is Ishenbek. He is a traditional nomadic Kyrgyz eagle hunter. Likely, he grew up with his bird, training the animal from the time he was a boy and forming a bond as strong as family.

Eagle hunting is a way of life for many in Kyrgyzstan. The central Asian country was founded on the ideals of a nomadic culture, where natives live in yurts in the countryside and support themselves with eagles, stock raising, tourism, and craft-making. Nomads are historically friendly people, offering tremendous hospitality to anyone who may need it. The way of life has become a national symbol.

saving an endangered culture

A traditional yurt in the Kyrgyz countryside (Photo: Rusavia/Wikimedia)

But Kyrgyzstan’s cherished nomadic culture is on the verge of extinction. The country of more than five million people has no natural resources like oil and gas to claim as its own and meager wages are earned by the continued export of items brought in from China. Raising livestock is unsustainable in the face of climate extremes and animal illness. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the nomads began to move away — and continue to do so today. Costs of living in rural areas increased and residents had to give up their way of life and move into the country’s cities. At this point, around 36 percent of the population is below the poverty line.

Trip to Kyrgyzstan, a tourism agency and IT group that has created a portal with a wealth of information about the country, is looking to change the doomed trajectory of the country. The group has initiated a crowdfunding project on IndieGogo to save the nomadic culture and boost the country’s tourism. An initial goal of $150,000 will be used for digital promotion, social media, Google advertising directed toward 10 countries, press trips, and videos about the country. The campaign also has stretch goals from $200,000 up to $1 million to create training courses for tourism staff, build a multilingual website, design mobile apps, create an online store of nomadic handicrafts, optimize a tourist information call center, and design an online travel-booking system. According to the campaign, “the best way to help the people in rural areas is to develop the tourism sector and support the handicraft production in local, nomadic communities.”

traditional yurt

A manaschi, a traditional Kyrgyz storyteller (Photo: SiGarb.jpg/Wikimedia)

Kyrgyzstan isn’t the first country to attempt to win the spoils of a successful crowdfund. Sweden has an entire portal,Crowdculture, dedicated to cultural projects. Kenya uses crowdfunding to boost their economy, funding mainly start-up businesses on platforms like Babandu and M-Changa. The African country even has a dedicated word for communal fundraising: harambee. Other countries, including Italy, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada, are adding and improving regulations for crowdfunding use.

Ishenbek surveys the rolling expanse of the high steppe (Photo: Rusavia/Wikimedia)

As for Kyrgyzstan, its project has been a tremendous failure. The campaign ends on Monday, September 22. As of now, only $430 towards the $150,000 goal has been met. That’s a pretty lofty goal to meet in a couple days, especially when Trip to Kyrgyzstan itself is a private project and receives no funding from investors or donors within the country. The group is relying on regular, everyday people with an interest in Kyrgyzstan to see this social entrepreneurship project to fruition. Rewards for the project range from minimal — a thank-you email for a $1 donation up to a handmade traditional felt carpet called a shyrdak (the process of making these carpets is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for a $150 donation — to extravagant: a five- to 10-day tour of the country for donations between $3,500 and $5,000.

So the question begs: can Kyrgyzstan pull it off? While we’re sure the country’s eagles will continue to fly over the country’s mountainous terrain, unless some anonymous benefactor comes forward and offers a fortune, the country’s nomadic culture risks extinction.

Jennifer Billock is a culinary travel writer, editor, and author. She owns Jennifer Billock Creative Services, a boutique editing and writing firm focusing on magazines and book manuscripts. 

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