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

Locusts Eat Away at Tajik Economy

Market prices go up as farmers salvage what they can from the insect invasion.
By IWPR Central Asia
Insatiably hungry, they arrive in countless numbers and are seemingly unstoppable. Locusts may be regular visitors to Tajikistan, but farmers say this year’s invasion is a plague that threatens both food and cotton production.

The locusts have come from neighbouring Afghanistan and Uzbekistan – which have also been affected – and stormed their way across the fertile flatlands in the south and southwest of the country

The agriculture ministry has not been able to assess the full extent of the damage, but tens of thousands of hectares of land have been affected and the Panj and Shaartuz districts in the far south, Hissar and Shahrinau in the west, and Rudaki district close to the capital Dushanbe. Khurasan district in southern Tajikistan has been worst hit, with 280 hectares of cotton lost.

The locusts - ordinary grasshoppers which periodically come together to swarm and migrate in their millions - are still on the move, and experts say they may soon breed and multiply again.

Cotton is a major export item which earns Tajikistan much-needed hard currency, so a poor harvest would have a major impact on the whole of the economy.

Mahmadrahim Yerov, the head of the agriculture ministry’s locust department, said cotton fields were currently being dusted with pesticides.

The ministry has also appealed for help abroad and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, the World Food Programme and the German AgroAction group, have offered to assist.

Farmers are reporting significant damage to their crops. Hasan Bobo, an elderly man who had come from Shaartuz to a Dushanbe market to sell his fruit and vegetables, said most of his crops had been eaten by locusts.

“There have been locusts in the past, but never as much damage as this year. I lost a lot of potatoes. I’ve brought along what I managed to save, and I’ll sell it at higher prices. Last year I sold potatoes wholesale at 30 dirams [10 cents a kilogramme] and at 60 dirams at the market, but prices have now doubled,” he told IWPR.

Ismat, a farmer from the Kolkhozobad district in southern Tajikistan, said, “Last year, we received a large income from the harvest, but this year the damned beetles and locusts ate half the potatoes, carrots and onions.”

Like many rural Tajiks, Ismat is already living on the margins and cannot absorb an extra economic blow. “There are lots of problems in the towns as well, of course, but they don’t compare with ours. The only way out is to go to work in Russia, and in fact almost all the men in Tajikistan’s villages have now left – there’s nothing to do here,” he said. “The money my brother sends from Russia every month helps us to survive more than anything we get from selling our crops.”

Kurbonali Barotov, a cotton farmer in the Khurasan district, is preparing to give up altogether. “Our farm owes over 20,000 [US] dollars to investors,” he explained. “We had to send our brother to Russia to [earn money to] repay some of the debt. I’d hoped I would pay off the debts this year, but then we had these damn locusts…. I’ll pay off the debt and go to Russia to work - you can’t make any money on our land.”

Critics of the government say it is not investing enough in supporting the ailing agricultural sector in this largely rural country.

“The locust problem has become extremely serious this year, and this is the result of unresolved issues in the agro-industrial sector,” said Dilovarshoh Juraev, the deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, who worked in the sector for years. “The agriculture ministry has no pesticides. The locusts mainly come from Afghanistan, and in the past special teams used to be set up to destroy locusts across the country. Now, unfortunately, agricultural chemistry has collapsed.”

An anonymous source at the agriculture ministry told IWPR that the funds earmarked for pesticides and other inputs were insufficient, “Our superiors always ask us what we’ve done with the money they allocated to us, but the sums involved are insufficient for an agricultural country. Apart from the locusts, there are other types of insects which damage crops. Unfortunately, the lack of pesticides is one of the reasons for the plague of locusts, and purchasing them would require enormous funds that we do not have.”

This interviewee concluded, “Our only hope at the moment is international organisations.”

Some argue that the problem is not the current level of international funding, but what happens to it. An agriculture expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the farming sector gets substantial injections of foreign aid every year, “But it’s unclear where this money goes, the farmers’ problems are never-ending, and the government keeps begging donors for money.”

The same question was asked by Zainab, a woman from Shahrinau, who said, “I don’t know who distributes it or how, but our family has never got anything.

“We deal with our own problems on the land. Sometimes we make some money, but this year it looks like we’ll have to look for other jobs because the entire harvest is dead.”

For the population at large, the immediate consequence of the locust invasion is that fruit and vegetables have become rarer and thus more costly. Emotions run high at markets as customers argue with traders over the soaring prices.

“I argue with customers everyday,” said market stall trader Alisher, seller of fruit and vegetables. “We’re just the salesmen – we buy the fruit and vegetables wholesale from the farmers. This year they were very expensive because the harvest was bad, and the farmers sold them at high prices.”

Many of the shoppers at the market knew about the locusts and their effect on prices. Not pensioner Nadezhda Ivanova, though, who thinks consumers are hard done by.

“These traders are always inventing some story. Wages go up by a few measly per cent, and the prices of literally everything go up drastically,” she said. “And this is in our sun-drenched country, where the fruits of the earth should cost pennies!”