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

Turkmenistan's Incredible Harvest

Bumper grain figures look too good to be true, as the president announces even higher targets for next year.

Even before officials gathered for festivities to mark July 18 - officially Harvest Day in Turkmenistan - news had broken that the country had achieved yet another record grain harvest.

Privately, though, government insiders poured scorn on the claimed production figures, and many people were cynical about what they saw as a sham celebration based on fictitious data.

A week before the folk-dancing got under way to mark Harvest Day in the capital Ashgabat, President Saparmurad Niazov - otherwise known as Turkmenbashi - announced that the country had reaped 2.84 million tons of wheat.

That tops last year’s official grain harvest figure - itself a record - recorded at 2.53 million tons. Local analysts say their latest best guess for actual production in 2003 is around 800,000 tonnes. IWPR reported that by winter 2003, police units were scouring the countryside forcibly requisitioning any grain they could find from farmers’ own stocks.

This year, too, production was much worse than reported, according to a member of staff at the agricultural ministry who did not want to be identified. And he said the grain was not all high-quality wheat, as the official reports suggest.

“In actual fact, just over one million tons of grain of various kinds and quality were harvested in the country this year. Only 40 to 45 per cent of the grain harvested is fit for use in the food industry,” he said.

“Everyone knows about it,” he continued. “It’s amazing that people aren’t ashamed to be present at these make-believe festivals, to listen to laudatory reports and look one another in the eye - although people who feel any sense of shame are becoming increasingly rare in our nation.”

A customs officer familiar with Turkmenistan’s import statistics said that the government’s continuing grain purchases abroad give the lie to the myth that the country is able to feed itself.

“Everything they say about our harvest is pure fantasy,” he said. “Every year, grain production increases on paper, while flour continues to come in from abroad - Kazakstan, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Russia.”

He said some of the imported flour is blended with the local product, which on its own is of such poor quality that people are reluctant to buy it.

For next year, Turkmenbashi has already set a grain target of 3.1 million tonnes - and has forecast that the country should be producing five million tonnes a year - about a tonne for every person - by the end of the decade.

A former official at the agricultural ministry dismissed the viability of such plans out of hand.

“It’s a joke to hear our president proclaiming to the world - that’s assuming anyone takes him seriously any more - that three million tons of high-quality grain will be harvested next year, and that Turkmenistan will be exporting wheat from 2010. In fact, the harvest is going to fall year by year.”

This former official believes degradation of the soil through over-exploitation could render large areas unusable. “If we take extreme measures next year to revitalise salinated lands next year, we will still need at least 10 to 15 years to preserve the land we have now. And if we put it off for another three to four year we can simply forget about agriculture as a part of the Turkmen economy.

Since Turkmenistan became independent, private farmers have been allowed to lease land from the state to earn a living. But many find themselves forced by the authorities to grow cotton or wheat - and they then have to sell it to the state monopoly grain firm at knock-down prices.

“The authorities force us to grow wheat on the rented fields,” complained one tenant farmer, who like many others feared what would happen if he were identified. “We’re effectively working at a loss, but we can’t refuse to do so - we are simply not allowed to use the land for anything else. If you plant onions, they just turn off the [irrigation] water. We have to put up with it, and we do grow wheat, and we only have onions on a small patch of land so we can sell them at market to make ends meet.”

The farmer concluded, “In the Soviet period, collective farmers lived well…. Now we are poverty-stricken, and we have to work in the fields all day long to keep from starving to death.”

Harvest Day is only one of many annual celebrations devised by Turkmenbashi in the last decade - others honour Turkmenistan’s horses, hounds and melons.

There’s an old joke in Turkmenistan that half the population is forced to spend all their time dancing at these staged folkloric events, while the rest are made to watch so that they get a sense of perpetual celebration. Occasionally, they get to switch places.

A young taxi driver driving past the grand government buildings where the celebrations were under way voiced a sense of resentment shared by many - even if they fear to express it openly.

“Who needs this festival? The people are starving, and all that’s left for them is dancing.”

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