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Uzbek Agriculture in Crisis

Uzbek grain farmers face destitution as the government seizes entire harvests at knockdown prices
By Said Khojaev

Uzbekistan's farmers are facing bankruptcy following a government decision to contravene the country's agricultural laws and seize this year's entire harvest at below-market prices.


Under the law the farmers should be entitled to keep part of the harvest either for their own needs or to sell on the open market. But pressure to meet the state's quota for grain - set at a level to ensure the country is self-sufficient in this essential commodity - has resulted in local authorities requisitioning farmers' entire crop.


"What am I to do?" pleads Abdurakhman Burnov, a farmer from the Jizak region. "How am I to feed my family? I've worked for nine months and have been left with nothing."


From the eight hectares that Burnov farms, under the original legal agreement with the authorities he should have been left with the proceeds from two hectares. But on orders from the regional governor a combine harvester arrived during the night and took away the remaining grain. The governor has to meet the requirements of the state's order at any cost or risk losing his job.


Farmers from Manas and Dustlik in the Jizak region have taken to the streets in protest. On June 27 indignant farmers blocked roads in the area, demanding that the authorities halt the grain seizures. Earlier in the month other farmers from the region clashed with cadets from a military training college who were guarding the grain harvest. When the authorities demanded that the farmers hand over their entire harvest, they rioted, attacking the cadets and farming equipment.


In Uzbekistan grain and cotton are viewed as strategic raw materials. The government policy on grain is aimed at ensuring the country is self-sufficient in that most vital of goods - bread. But the policy is being pushed through at a time when the republic is undergoing serious water shortages that have ruined thousands of hectares of grain fields. The government's insistence on meeting its quotas has left farmers no surplus.


Meanwhile the republic's law enforcement bodies and media have embarked on a campaign to punish anyone who dares to challenge the 2001 harvest. An army of journalists reports daily on the successes of the farmers, vilifying those who threaten not to meet the state's quota and detailing legal proceedings against 'violators of the law'.


The Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources says this year's state plan calls on farmers to provide 2.3 million tons of grain. About 2 million tons have been harvested already and the ministry hopes the rest will be collected by mid-July. Regional and district officials say they can meet the targets. And keep their jobs.


Uzbekistan struck out on the path of grain self-sufficiency in the early 1990s. World Bank experts believe two factors lay behind the move. One was the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the traditional grain supply chain. When economic relations between the various republics crashed, reliable imports of grain to Uzbekistan stopped as well. Secondly, Uzbekistan consequently found itself buying grain at market, and not Soviet, prices, at a time when that price was relatively high.


But things have changed since the turbulent early 1990s. In recent years regional grain supplies, mainly from Kazakstan, have stabilised and market prices have dropped. International financial experts believe these changes have undermined the logic of Uzbekistan's continued drive for self-sufficiency.


Specialists argue the policy is causing more damage to the agricultural sector than it saves in revenue.


Uzbek farmers are being denied the opportunity to grow alternative crops, which have traditionally enhanced their incomes. Before they could grow these crops for sale to processing enterprises in Uzbekistan and sell any surplus on the open market. But government grain quotas and customs barriers have deprived Uzbek farmers of a niche market they once enjoyed in Russia and Kazakstan.


The grain drive has also had a severe knock-on effect on animal husbandry as almost half of the acreage previously devoted to growing animal feed has been turned over to grain. Lack of animal feed has resulted in the decimation of industrialised animal husbandry in the country. Now animals are reared almost exclusively on much less efficient small domestic farms.


Nowadays there are no home-produced dairy products in Uzbekistan's shops. The Soviet era diary and meat sectors, once a thriving concern, have all but vanished.


Most damaging of all, however, is the price set by the government when buying grain from Uzbekistan's farmers - about 25 per cent of the market value.


The farmers buy seed for sowing at 20 cents per kilo. But the state buys the harvest back at a third of that price. On the open market the farmers could sell for 24 cents per kilo.


Thus, the state condemns its rural residents to poverty, turns them into slaves who work from early morning till late night for scanty pay or even for free and then takes away from them the very last thing that is left on their tables - bread.


The Nuraliev family from the Urgut district of Samarkand region has recently staged a rally in front of the regional government and declared a hunger strike. They demanded the authorities cough up their unpaid salaries and complained that for many weeks they had been unable to buy bread. The family has been living off low quality barley, grain husks and mineral fertilisers usually given to animals, making black, hard bread from this concoction.


World Bank specialists recommend the government take on the role of competitive buyer on the open market to stimulate agriculture in Uzbekistan, including grain production, especially as the state currently needs less than its actual quota. At least the surplus, the experts say, should be sold on the open market at whatever price market forces dictate.


Such a policy would benefit Uzbekistan's rural population - around 60 per cent of the total.


Many specialists reckon a better strategy for the government would have been to boost purchases of grain and flour from Kazakstan, which produces enough higher quality grain in sufficient quantities to satisfy Uzbekistan's needs. Meanwhile Uzbek farmers could have diversified into alternative agricultural products.


Uzbek official data from 2000 indicated the republic imported over 0.5 million tons of grain and about 100,000 tons of flour from Kazakstan at a cost of $87 million. But experts on Uzbek-Kazak relations suggest contraband flour and grain imports were at least equal in volume.


Despite all these contrary arguments, the Uzbek government remains unyielding in its push for self-sufficiency.


Even workers in the prosecutors' office, entrusted with ensuring not a single grain is lost, bewail the situation. An official from one of the Jizak districts, which failed to meet its targets, says he will now lose his job.


"If I had a gun I'd shoot myself," he says before getting on the phone to the district governor to demand that he get grain 'from where ever you want!' It is the farmers, of course, who'll have to cough up. That is, if they have any grain left.


Said Khojaev is a pseudonym of a journalist in Uzbekistan


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