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Azeri Tea Plantation Demise

High production costs force country's famous tea growers to switch to vegetable and rice cultivation.
By Idrak Abbasov

Gultekin Ahadova speaks nostalgically of her time as a tea harvester in the early Nineties, " We worked 8-hour days, making a guaranteed 180 roubles a month, very decent money back then."

 

She worked on the famous Lenkoran plantations - about 260 km south of the capital Baku - for 14 years until 1995, losing her job as the industry began to decline as a result of neglect and mismanagement.

 

These days, Gultekin is a shuttle trader supplying Lenkoran with cheap Iranian consumer goods, and the industry in which she once worked is on the brink of collapse - producing just 1400 tons of tea leaves a year, 22 times less than the production peak in 1982.

 

It's a sad state of affairs for the region that once boasted a brand, Lenkoran Extra, which government officials served to important guests. Now the country can only supply two per cent of its tea needs - the rest is imported, mostly from Sri Lanka, according to some in the industry.

 

The sector's demise began with the Nagorny Karabakh conflict of 1991-4, which pushed tea production way down the list of government priorities. Its fortunes worsened with the privatisation of plantations several years later.

 

"Tea production has plummeted in Azerbaijan since government lands were privatised. No one can tell private farmers what to grow," said Elbrus Halilov, head of the department of grape, fruit, vegetable and tea farming at the Azerbaijani agricultural ministry.

 

As a result, many farmers have turned their plantations over to vegetable and rice cultivation. Such crops don't earn as much, but they are less costly to grow.

 

"Unlike tea, they do not require start-up capital, fertilisers and machinery," said Suret Aliev, one of the many tea growers forced to diversify.

 

Another local farmer, Faraim Lalaev, who has done the same, said tea producers simply couldn't afford to keep going, "In Soviet times, there were 220 hectares of plantations [my] village. Now there are less than 20.

 

"Times were hard in the Nineties, so people let their cattle feed on the tea plants. When electricity and gas were cut off, people cut them down to stoke their furnaces. Those plants had taken years of careful nursing to grow. It's a shame."

 

Many are critical of the authorities for not offering plantation owners financial and practical support to help them continue growing Lenkoran's famous crop.

 

Elshan Manafov, of the opposition Social Democratic Party, said privatisation was not the problem, but the way it was handled, " The state did nothing to protect local farmers, never gave them the loans that were badly needed to revive production."

 

Some farmers believe they are facing a new threat from a number of the joint Azeri-Turkish tea packing ventures that have set up in the area over the last year, accusing them of driving prices down and passing off inferior imported brands as Azerbaijani products.

 

"Foreign and joint companies that have recently entered the market, undercut tea prices all the time. A kilo of crude tea leaves cost 1500 manats (30 US cents) six years ago - the price has since dropped to 1200 manats," said Aliev.

 

"Foreigners seek to destroy local production and discredit the reputation of Lenkoran tea. They import the cheapest kinds of Ceylon tea, add colorants, and sell its as Azerbaijani tea," said Lalaev.

 

The joint ventures deny that their teas are impure or that they drive down prices, suggesting that the local tea farmers have only themselves to blame.

 

"Not a single lab in the world could identify such ingredients in our tea. We hold an international certificate of compliance," said Zardabi Nagiev, manager of the AzerSun tea packing operation. "It is also unfair to say that we undercut crude tea prices. We have no control over prices anyway. Azerbiajian is a market economy, where prices are dictated by supply and demand."

 

Nagiev believes it was the region's tea producers who destroyed the industry by "blatantly mismanaging the facilities they had received from the state".

 

Idraq Abbasov is a reporter for Impuls newspaper in Baku.

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