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

Turkmenistan: Another Year, Another Great Harvest

By News Briefing Central Asia
  • Harvest machinery in northern Turkmenistan. (Фото: NBCentralAsia)
    Harvest machinery in northern Turkmenistan. (Фото: NBCentralAsia)

In an annual ritual reminiscent of the Soviet period, Turkmenistan’s leadership has once again announced that the grain harvest has exceeded all expectations. Farmers say production has been poor, and many residents are left wondering if they will be able to afford bread.

Addressing a cabinet meeting on July 15, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov said the 1.3 million tons of grain gathered by the end of the summer harvesting season showed that the country had grown into “a strong state that entirely provides for its own food security”.

The experts would disagree. For one thing, the best independent estimates suggest that Turkmenistan consumes 2.5 million tons of cereals a year, nearly twice the amount Berdymuhammedov suggested. For another, all the signs are that actual production is significantly lower than claimed, and that the figures have been inflated by officials anxious to “fulfil the plan” and please their leader. Then there is the fact that given Turkmenistan’s arid desert terrain, growing wheat is difficult so much of what is produced is fit only for animal feed.

To make up the difference between demand and the actual domestic supply of wheat, the authorities quietly import grain from Kazakstan and Russia.

Farmers in Turkmenistan are nominally private but are set unrealistic targets by the state, which they are pressured to meet so that government officials can report successes to their superiors, and so on up the chain.

In private, though, farmers say spring frosts, a shortage of water through the season, and chronic soil salination mean another bad year.

“The harvest is pathetic everywhere this year,” a combine harvester driver from the central Ahal region said. “I have to several end-to-end runs over the same stretch if I’m to fill the bins of my Case harvester. Last year I had to unload [full bins] much more often.”

Two experts – the head of a grain delivery centre in Ahal and a purchasing specialist from the state grain agency – confirmed that production was poor this year, with silos only about half-full.

“The combine harvesters have been pretty much skimming empty fields,” the grain agency official said. “The wheat hasn’t come up, it isn’t higher than 30 centimetres in many areas, and yields aren’t even up to one ton per hectare.”

A farmer in the southwestern Mary region described how the harvest reports become skewed.

“Everyone knew it was a drought year and that the fertiliser was being pilfered. But everyone – from the heads of farming associations up to deputy prime minister level – continued as before to report upwards that everything was just fine,” he said.

A media-watcher in the country said it was possible to read between the lines and deduce that all was not well, because there was less news reporting on the harvest and “fulfilling the plan” than in earlier years.

“The tone of the press and broadcast coverage suggests things aren’t going too smoothly this year,” he said. “There aren’t the same exultant reports as before, and news on successes tend to focus on an individual farmer or a small farm.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

More IWPR's Global Voices