Spice Row in Kyrgyzstan

Thousands earn an income picking wild capers, but this new industry has spawned debate about sustainability, fair pay and government regulation.

Spice Row in Kyrgyzstan

Thousands earn an income picking wild capers, but this new industry has spawned debate about sustainability, fair pay and government regulation.

A piquant pizza topping might seem an unlikely source of tension in Kyrgyzstan, but a debate over caper production exemplifies what can happen when a new industry collides with other interests like sustainable development and the environment.

Capers have always grown wild in southern Kyrgyzstan, but did not really feature in the local cuisine. It was Turkish businessmen who spotted the potential for reaping the small spicy buds and sending them off to Europe where they are pickled and sold as a Mediterranean flavouring.

The caper industry has burgeoned since it started in Jalalabad a few years ago, and thousands of people – mainly women and children – now make a living by picking the immature buds – perhaps 30,000 or 40,000 tons every year – for export.

While the discovery of foreign demand for a home-grown plant has created a lot of employment in the south, there are no regulations governing how much the harvesters are paid, as they work freelance.

The pickers receive only a fraction of the eventual price that buyers will pay in Western delicatessens, although by local standards the money can be a useful supplement to family incomes.

For the last three years, 13-year-old Akyl and his friend Marat have been picking wild capers in Jalalabad during the summer holidays.

Last summer, Akyl earned 9,000 soms - over 230 US dollars – in a few months, the same as his mother earns in a year working as a cleaner, and enough to stock up on food for winter and modest school clothing. This year, he plans to earn even more.

During the harvesting season, which runs from June until October, buds are gathered using gourds specially cut into shape and then emptied into old cloth bags.

The buds are very light, but one picker should be able to gather three or even five kilograms a day if he or she works hard, getting up to one dollar per kilogram.

“It’s hard work, but it’s better than dragging a handcart at the market, where anyone can be rude to you,” said Akyl.

Collecting the buds puts a strain on the back, as the long stalks of the plant are spread low over the ground, and the prickly buds are sore on the fingers.

A woman of 45 explained, “Because you’re constantly bending your back, your back hurts, and when you raise your head everything goes black. The doctors say I have anaemia,” she said. “But the work not only helps us survive, it lets us put our the children through school as well.”

This woman, who did not want to be identified, has a full-time job but has found it hard to make ends meet as public-sector wages lag further and further behind the rising cost of living.

“I work as a technician at a school, but we don’t work in the summer holidays,” she said, wiping the perspiration from her face and smiling in embarrassment.

Explaining that she earned just 400 soms around 10 dollars a month from her job and had to support three young children, she added, “My husband is in Russia, but the money he sends us isn’t enough for the family.”

At central collection points in villages and towns in the region, the buds are sifted and graded manually sifted out by sorters, who earn 70 or 80 soms - around two dollars - a day.

“When we get hired, we’re promised 100 to 150 soms a day if we meet the quota,” said 35-year-old Aisuluu Temirova. “But we soon find out that it isn’t easy to do that. It’s hard work, but it’s better than no work at all.”

Abdykapar Kayupov is head of Sky, a local firm which buys capers from the pickers and sells them on to foreign buyers.

He said the industry brings in several million dollars a year for Jalalabad region alone and has created work for up to 6,000 people there.

Kayupov said it was natural for the retail price in Europe to be ten times higher than the money the pickers earned, since by then the product had reached “the 15 person in the chain”. He would not reveal how much his firm earned for a kilo of capers.

Although caper picking has become a vital source of income for many, there are fears that will prove an unsustainable form of livelihood. As the capers are wild rather than cultivated, no investment is made in regenerating plants for future years.

Environmentalist are warning that unregulated and excessive harvesting will rapidly deplete stocks and cause wider damage to the ecosystem.

The thick stems of the caper shrub help keep the soil moist and protect it from erosion, they say its destruction could turn the area into a wasteland where other plants will refuse to grow.

Figures from Jalalabad region’s customs service indicate that exports are falling – 812 tons of capers were recorded leaving the country last year compared with 1,400 tons in 2005. Environmentalists cite this as evidence that the plant is dying out.

Rahman Kasymov, chief inspector of the region’s environmental service, said unrestricted harvesting was killing the plants off.

“People gather the buds and don’t let the plant blossom and bear fruit,” he explained.

According to biologist Zikriyo Sarimsakov, the threat of over-picking is very real.

“If you gather 40 to 50 per cent of the buds, it isn’t dangerous for the plant, but if you pick more than that, the plant may be destroyed,” he said. “People usually gather a lot more because no one is controlling the process.”

Kayupov dismissed such claims, saying capers were resilient and so widespread that would be extremely hard to wipe them out.

“Capers grow over a vast area, and people don’t manage to harvest them completely. In addition, the opened blossoms, flowers and fruit don’t interest us. And new buds quickly grow to replace the ones that are picked,” he said.

A Turkish businessman involved in the trade agreed. “This plant is hardy and the buds grow back quickly. We’ve been gathering them in Turkey for decades and they haven’t died out,” he said, asking not to be named.

Salijan Umarov, an advisor to the Jalalabad city administration, said the purchasing firms were reneging on promises they had made to invest in regeneration.

“They do not observe these rules, and this may lead to the destruction of a unique plant,” he said.

Kasymov said the Turkish businesses that initially encouraged the caper industry in southern Kyrgyzstan paid a local “green tax” and also provided tens of thousands of seedlings.

“These firms paid the environmental service one som per kilogram of capers,” he said. “We used this money to restore dams, put in new plants, and help people who had suffered from natural disasters.”

In 2005, the Kyrgyz authorities abolished the requirement for a license to harvest of capers, and the environmental service lost both its income and the right to supervise harvesting practices.

“We used to send our inspectors out and they’d monitor every kilogram of capers that was harvested, and the way they were picked. Now we only have the right to ensure that the caper pickers keep the area clean,” said Kasymov.

Another ecologist, Kasym Rahmanov, would like to see a moratorium on the caper trade – or at least the restoration of the earlier licensing system.

The arguments between the different interest groups extend beyond questions of equitable pay and environmental sustainability to allegations of full-scale corruption.

Some environmentalists allege that people in high places are benefiting from the lack of regulation

One official, Nurbek Jeenaliev, who heads the agricultural department in the Jalalabad regional government, harbours similar suspicions.

“The absence of licensing for this kind of business leads to attempts to cover up [illicit exports] and thus sows corruption. The customs and tax agencies also have an interest, as they can conceal the scale of exports in return for bribes,” he said.

But the head of Jalalabad region’s customs service, Abdilaziz Kayupov, denied that his officers were taking kickbacks, and added his own counter-allegation that environmental groups were simply annoyed at losing out on the income they earned when licensing was in place.

“These environmentalists who propose reintroducing licenses for caper picking are interested in the money they used to get from the collectors. Now they’re trying to prevent people collecting buds that will otherwise go to waste,” he said.

The Turkish businessman agreed that the environmentalists had their own reasons for opposing the trade.

“Before we arrived, no one was interested in this plant. We’re now turning these wild plants into money,” he said. “We pay thousands of people and create millions [of dollars] in investment for the region, but all the ecologists and forestry workers do is hinder us.”

Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an independent journalist in southern Kyrgyzstan.

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