Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

End Draws Near for Kazakstan's Tenant Farmers

Farms working other people’s land could be evicted from January.
By Aliya Asembaeva

Hundreds of thousands of farmers in Kazakstan may lose their livelihoods if elements of a controversial land reform are not put on hold.


As part of a process of privatisation, the state is ending the currently widespread practice where people who own rights to a piece of land can sub-let it to farmers.


The Asar party – led by President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s daughter Dariga – has urged parliament to delay putting the tenant farmers off their land until ways to mitigate the reform can be found.


A new land code introduced in June 2003 introduced private ownership of agricultural land for the first time. Up until then, farmland could only be leased from the state, under a deal where people who lived in rural areas got a share of the former Soviet state-owned farms. They held the land on a long lease from the state, free of charge.


Under the new law, anyone who holds such a lease can convert it into ownership deeds by buying their land from the state. Alternatively, they can take out a short lease free of charge or a 49-year one for which they must now pay.


As well as people working as farmers, the state land was parcelled out to other rural inhabitants – teachers, doctors, pensioners and the like – who held the same lease rights to a piece of land but were not in a position to farm themselves. These people, whose numbers are estimated at a million or more, chose to sub-let their land to farmers.


From January, sub-letting of leased farmland becomes illegal.


It will be legal for a farmer to rent out territory which he has purchased under the land reform and now owns, so a sub-letting tenant could renegotiate his position and continue to rent land under a new lease contract.


However, most tenant farmers are likely to lose out because the people from whom they rent land constitute a vulnerable group who are likely to forfeit all rights to acquire full property rights. Often pensioners who receive 40 dollars a month from the state, these leaseholders frequently accept rental payment in kind – a share of the harvest rather than cash - so they have little capital with which to buy their land outright.


That means the bulk of the sub-let land will fall between the legal cracks, with neither the current lease-owner nor the tenant farmer in a position to acquire rights to it. Instead, it will revert to state ownership by default.


The land code has been on the law books for more than a year, but it seems that it is only as the January deadline approaches that the sub-letting ban has risen to the top of the political agenda. Many politicians and activists complain that the change has not been properly publicised, and that more time will be needed to help farmers adjust.


The Asar party has been at the forefront of efforts to amend the land law. On November 1, deputies from the party presented the government with a petition signed by 25,000 people asking for the sub-letting ban to be scrapped, or at least postponed.


The government has yet to respond, and Asar deputy Rashit Akhmetov told IWPR that he had serious concerns over the way the authorities were handling the issue. “The land code needs to exist, but if it causes problems for a large number of people, these must be addressed,” he said. “The question should be answered, not ignored.”


Most opponents of the reform are trying to get the authorities to postpone it rather than abolish the clause entirely.


“Subleasing needs to be postponed by at least a year, and then people will be able to register their land as the law requires,” said parliamentary deputy Ualikhan Kalijanuly. “If everything stays the way it is, no one will be able to buy land.”


Adilkhan Umirbaev, president of the national farmers’ union, warned that those who have been cultivating sub-let plots stand to lose a lot more than just the use of the land itself. “These people have maintained crop rotation and have installed power and telephone lines over a period of years. Now this investment is going to be taken away from them,” he said.


Another major obstacle to President Nazarbaev’s land reform is that many farmers who are entitled to acquire the rights to the land they work are likely to miss the end of December deadline by which they must stake their claim to lease or buy it. Their existing lease will become invalid.


Many farmers have still failed to lay claim to their land as time runs out. Leaseholders and tenants alike appear unaware of the legal changes or the impact they will have.


Nikolai Tkach, a farmer in the northern Pavlodar region, told IWPR that he had been too busy in the fields to be aware of the law. “Farmers have one thought – to finish our work in the fields,” he said. “If we devote ourselves to other matters, we have to leave the fields and we won’t finish the harvest.”


One of the remarkable features of the row over the land code is the involvement of pro-government groups such as Asar in contesting the changes and upholding farmers’ rights.


It is rare for a piece of legislation to provoke such fury, but the land code has been controversial since its inception. When it was submitted to parliament in 2003, it caused furious debates, the main concern expressed at the time being the principle of private ownership itself, and the government had to steamroller the bill through against the wishes of deputies.


The question now is whether political pressure can force the government to accept a postponement of the controversial provisions, which could see tenant farmers cleared off their land.


According to leading opposition figure Piotr Svoik, “Sub-letting is the last hope that rural residents have to cling on to.”


Aliya Asembaeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Astana.