Diversification is routinely promoted to improve poor rural peoples' livelihoods. However, policy recommendations for livelihood diversification based on evidence from crop-cultivating sedentary rural societies may not work for mobile pastoral communities, where socio-ecological conditions predetermine livestock herding as the preferred livelihood strategy. Using survey and semi-structured interview data collected from 159 households in the Altay and Tianshan Mountains of Xinjiang, China, this study applies cluster analysis to identify six distinct groups based on livelihood strategies: pastoralists, agropastoralists, crop farmers, wage labourers, hired herders and mixed smallholders. Although pastoralism is the least diverse of these in terms of sources of income, it is significantly more diverse in ecological dimensions such as spatial movement, land use pattern and livestock portfolio. Patterns of livelihood diversification and their relationship with household incomes indicate that pastoralism, although preferred, is unattainable for 55 per cent of households given their meagre asset endowments and the pressure of government policies toward sedentarization. The results strongly suggest that livelihood diversification does not improve welfare for pastoral households. Future development interventions should promote policies that enable households to regain flexible access to pastures and should aim to correct the imbalance of opportunities that exists in northern Xinjiang.
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