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Turkmenistan: Cotton Industry in Crisis

New law may be implemented in an attempt to reverse a series of disappointing harvests.
By the.iwpr

Turkmenistan’s deepening agricultural crisis may lead to a draft law on land issues being rushed into effect this month in a bid to minimise the damage.

The People’s Council – the highest state body which meets annually to discuss the most important issues facing the country - is due to debate a new land law when it next meets, on the eve of Turkmen independence day on October 27.

While no details have emerged about the content of the proposed new legislation, observers are sure that it will be passed into law without any difficulty – whether it actually benefits Turkmen farmers or not.

The disappointing cotton harvest has raised many questions about the state agricultural policy, making the possible implementation of the draft law very timely indeed. However, President Saparmurat Niazov refuses to admit that there is a serious problem with the agricultural production, and has chosen to blame individuals instead.

Niazov has already punished his officials for the poor return on the harvest. At a September 27 cabinet meeting, he docked three months’ wages from several high-ranking officials including the deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture, the heads of two state agricultural companies, the water resources minister, and all but one of the republic’s regional governors.

However, one former high-ranking agriculture ministry official – who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity – described the president’s displeasure as “misplaced”. The poor harvest is not the result of official negligence, he said, but rather a crisis in the agricultural system instead.

Turkmenistan’s main export product is natural gas, but it also relies heavily on its cotton harvest, using 50 of its 60 agricultural regions to grow the crop and setting high quotas for farmers.

The target set for this year’s harvest was 2.2 million tonnes, and officials claim that around 600,000 have been collected so far. But these figures are disputed. Insiders claim that around half that figure has been harvested and that the entire 2004 crop is unlikely to top more than around half a million tonnes.

The agriculture ministry claims that around 800,000 hectares were planted with cotton this year. But the former official told IWPR that in fact more than 1.25 million hectares of land were sown with the crop – to allow regional heads to boast that they had collected a record harvest of cotton per hectare.

The ex-official voiced fears that Turkmenistan’s arable land – already damaged by years of intensive farming – may have deteriorated further as a result of this.

The failure of the 2004 harvest in spite of these tactics has been blamed on poor organisation and a lack of incentives for farmers.

“Our land does not have a real owner, and our farmers have no independence at all – they are told what to plant, and when to water, weed and collect the harvest,” said the former agriculture ministry official.

“They work under constraints and at the end of the season they have to sell the harvest to the state at a low price and, as a result, they continue to live miserably. With this system there is no incentive for the workers, and so agriculture continues to decline.”

Nepes-aga, a farmer near the capital Ashgabad, told IWPR that he was forced to plant cotton on the two hectares of land he rents from the authorities, but that the seeds and fertiliser provided by the state proved to be of poor quality.

“As a result, there was no harvest this year, and we were left with nothing,” he explained. “It’s good that our two elder sons have jobs in the city - we live on their earnings.”

The state supports farmers who grow grain and cotton, giving them seeds and providing equipment to till and irrigate the land – in return for a very low purchase price when the government buys the crop from them.

Economists argue that this system is actually helping farmers to get into debt rather than aiding them to produce a good harvest. It results in a vicious cycle where farmers are increasingly restricted in what they can afford to invest in the land, knowing that the eventual return from the state will be less than they need to prepare for the following year.

A short-sighted approach to agricultural policy has also been blamed for the decline.

A lack of money and specialist staff has led to a drop in the number of agricultural agencies dedicated to finding the best cotton seeds in the republic, and nurturing them for distribution the following year. And the cotton-growing institute in Iolotan, which worked on scientific methods of improving the crop by developing hardier and faster-growing strains, has effectively been wound up.

Former institute employee Natalya Sergeevna told IWPR that the funding for their work had simply dried up. “Turkmenistan has proved not only unable to develop its agriculture, but also unable to preserve the scientific potential it inherited from the Soviet Union,” she said.

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