Agriculture in Central Asia: Unlocking the Potential. An Interview with Irna Hofman

Agricultural production in Central Asia has the potential to profit its millions of rural inhabitants. Yet the sector has thus far failed to diversity its exports, which would allow it to play a more meaningful role in the economies of Central Asian states. Irna Hofman, a rural sociologist who specializes in social and agrarian change in post-socialist societies, illuminates the structural factors that are keeping Central Asian agriculture from unlocking its potential.

Interview with


Irna Hofman

Leiden University

Irna Hofman is a Ph.D. Candidate at Leiden University. Her doctoral research is focused on the political economy of agrarian change in post-Soviet Tajikistan, for which she conducted longer-term fieldwork in (mainly) southwest Tajikistan. Irna is a rural sociologist by training and she is specialized in social and agrarian change in post-socialist societies. Other and related interests include food security; rural livelihoods; cotton farming; the Chinese presence in Central Asia; and, organic agriculture. She has earlier also conducted research on agrarian change in Uzbekistan and was a temporary research fellow (2014) at IAMO, the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (Halle/S in Germany).

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Can you please acquaint us with the agricultural diversity of the region? Who plants and cultivates what and how much?

There is a rich diversity of agricultural production in Central Asia. In terms of cultivation patterns and agrarian structures, there are differences between the Central Asian republics (CARs), but also within countries. Crop diversity in Central Asia has increased since 1991, but the different countries have also maintained, to some degree, the specializations they assumed under Soviet rule. I think it is relevant to ask who produces what, to what extent production matches domestic demand, and how important crops are to the specific countries. This, I think, is more interesting and relevant than a focus on absolute quantities.

Under Soviet rule, each Central Asian country specialized in specific crops. Cotton was produced by smallholders before the Russian conquest of Central Asia, but production increased dramatically under Russian—and later Soviet—rule. As a result of this intensification, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan became the primary cotton-producing countries of the Soviet Union, but at the same time, these countries were also important producers of fruits and vegetables.

Cotton contributed significantly to the Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik economies in the 1990s.

The cotton sector accounted for around 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Uzbekistan, almost 25 percent in Turkmenistan, and nearly 10 percent in Tajikistan. Today, these percentages are much lower: in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, cotton accounts for around 5 percent of GDP, and in Turkmenistan around 2 percent.

Nevertheless, cotton remains important in these countries. Typically, it leaves these countries without any value added: processing and manufacturing take place elsewhere.

Cotton is also cultivated in southern Kazakhstan and some provinces of Kyrgyzstan. Yet there are important differences between the cotton economies of these two countries compared to the three Central Asian republics mentioned above. In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, there has been a state (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) or private (Tajikistan) monopsony on cotton. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, a more liberalized market and production environment exists. This reality has ramifications for cotton farm gate prices: where cotton procurers/ginneries compete, farm gate prices tend to be higher than where there is only one buyer. Note that, the situation in Tajikistan has changed in the last couple of years, as the so-called futures system was abolished.

Wheat is a major staple crop in Central Asia, and the amount of land under wheat cultivation has increased since 1991, particularly in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Under Soviet rule, the large-scale farms in these three countries concentrated mainly on cotton and wheat, generally with a crop rotation between the two crops. In contemporary Central Asia, wheat is still an important crop, cultivated by commercial farmers and sometimes also by rural households on their small household plots. Kazakhstan is the primary producer of grain in the region. The country became the region’s breadbasket during the Soviet era; today, only Kazakhstan is self-sufficient in grain, and it exports wheat and flour to neighboring republics. Half of Tajikistan’s wheat demand is met with supply from Kazakhstan.

Wheat is a major staple crop in Central Asia, and the amount of land under wheat cultivation has increased since 1991.

Central Asia is also known for its rich diversity of fruit and vegetables. The climate in the region allows for the cultivation of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables from spring to autumn. Under Soviet rule, horticultural production was most prominent on kolkhozniks’ household plots. In the last few years, the produce of commercial farmers’ fields has likewise diversified, notably in Tajikistan. Nevertheless, ordinary rural households continue to be highly important in supplying urban markets with fruits and vegetables.

For larger farmers, it is sometimes problematic to produce and market large quantities of perishable products. To this day, infrastructure and markets are not well suited to deal with larger quantities of perishable products, and farmers lack the capacity to store or transport such products quickly so as to avoid them rotting in the summer heat. It is therefore understandable that some farmers still prefer to grow cotton even though farm gate prices for cotton are relatively low.

What is the situation with exporting agricultural products and how do the republics maintain the regional agricultural market? Who exports/imports what and to/from where?

The regional market is important for the different republics, and Russia, the EU, and China are other important trade partners. Cotton and wheat are prominent exports from the Central Asian region to Russia, the EU, and China. To a lesser extent, vegetables and fruits are also important in trade.

When it comes to the export characteristics of the different Central Asian countries, most countries have a similar production pattern. Looking at the Ferghana Valley—that is, farm production in eastern Uzbekistan, northern Tajikistan, and southwest Kyrgyzstan—we can see that all farms in this region produce a range of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which are primarily sold on the domestic market as fresh or dried produce. It is difficult to single out any crop that is specific to one of the countries concerned. Most countries primarily serve domestic consumers, but exports to surrounding republics do take place. Kazakhstan is an important export destination for fruits and vegetables from the other CARs. Dried fruits and nuts are exported further abroad.

Kazakhstan is the primary export country of the region. It exports considerable quantities of grain and flour to neighboring CARs, and it also exports smaller quantities of other agricultural commodities, among which dairy products. Wheat and products derived from grain, including flour and bread, comprise over 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s agricultural exports by export value. As noted above, Tajikistan is particularly dependent on grain imported from Kazakhstan: as noted above, around 50 percent of the country’s demand is met by imports from Kazakhstan. Moreover, in Tajikistan, domestic wheat and flour are considered to be of inferior quality; people prefer to consume Kazakh flour. Some rural households mix it with their self-produced wheat.

In the three countries that specialize in cotton, cotton is an important export crop. A part is exported to the EU, and a larger part of the production volume to China. Yet it appears difficult to trace the journey of cotton from field to factory and from there to shop floors. I am eager to start a research project looking at this global production network; it is remarkable that “Western” brands pay significant attention to labor conditions on the factory floor, while field conditions receive much less attention. I wonder whether such brands know where their cotton was produced.

The importance of cotton can clearly be seen in Tajikistan, where cotton (including residues, such as cotton oil and cake) comprises over 60 percent of the country’s agricultural exports (by export value) (FAO data, 2016). In Turkmenistan, cotton is even more important as an agricultural export commodity. In Uzbekistan, there is a wider variety of agricultural exports, with the result that cotton is (slightly) less important than in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as a share of agricultural export value.

China is becoming an increasingly important player when it comes to agricultural trade with/in Central Asia. There is some export of agricultural commodities to China, with cotton a prominent feature of this trade. According to policy analysts, there is high potential to supply the Chinese market in the coming decades, as demand in China is certainly growing, particularly for fruits and vegetables. At present, it is primarily cotton that is exported to China, and the trade balance is negative: the Central Asian republics import more from China than they export to China. Notably, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan compete with China to supply the Kazakh market with fruits and vegetables.

Exports to the EU consist primarily of cotton, as well as Kazakh grain and oil seeds. Meanwhile, the Central Asian republics import food products—primarily processed foods—from Europe. This is a clear sign of improved living standards in Central Asia. It is evident that there is a trend toward “supermarketization,” in which the bazaar increasingly gives way to supermarkets. This development is primarily taking place in urban areas. In the countryside, smaller bazaars are still the most important venues for agricultural commodities to change hands.

Tajikistan is most food import dependent of the CARs. Regarding the import of food products, a small range of processed food and luxury products stand out: tea; sugar; (chicken) meat; vegetable oil; dairy products, such as butter and pasteurized milk; coffee; and cacao (chocolate). Some of these food products travel a long distance, others are for instance imported from Kazakhstan. I was surprised to find butter from New Zealand, and pasteurized milk from Eastern Europe in the supermarkets in Dushanbe. Furthermore, as noted before, Tajikistan is highly dependent on wheat imports from Kazakhstan. Yet also Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan import significant amounts of wheat and flour from Kazakhstan. Notably, Tajikistan also imports significant quantities of rice and potatoes (important staple crops).

The CARs depend on each other when it comes to exporting agricultural commodities outside the Central Asian region. Products from Tajikistan, for example, have to cross Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan before reaching the Russian border. The establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union has had implications for trade in Central Asia. It has eased trade between member states but made trade between member and non-member states more problematic. However, it is difficult to assess the impact of the EEU in the region when it comes to trade in agricultural commodities because there is a lot of informal trade of agricultural commodities in the border regions. This informal trade is important for rural livelihoods, but it is not included in country-level/macro-level statistics.

That said, there are barriers that hinder smooth trade between the CARs, and between Central Asia and neighboring countries. Trade is hindered by poorly developed trade corridors, weak customs administration, and the difficulty to meet phytosanitary standards with which products need to comply to in order to enter (for instance) the EU. Another issue is that many (smallholder) farmers in Central Asia select their own (vegetable) seeds. As a result, output is highly heterogeneous, which may hamper the export of larger quantities. Buyers in Europe or Russia may demand sorted products, which would require a different production system. I am not (necessarily) an advocate of contract farming, but it is often suggested as a means of streamlining production and enhancing trade in agricultural commodities.

Fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which are primarily sold on the domestic market.

What is the situation with food safety in the region?

There is an important difference between food safety and food security, and I think the issue of food security is the more important of the two in this context. When it comes to food security, one has to consider that sufficient caloric intake does not mean that food security has been achieved—the quality of food (in terms of essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals) matters. Low diversity of food can result in malnutrition, leading to stunted growth and wasting among children.

Food insecurity (and food security) is highly related to poverty and access to basic needs. Notably arable land is scarce in the Central Asian region, but still, many people find employment in the agricultural sector in Central Asia and are engaged in farming. Yet many people engaged in farming are food insecure. Is it a paradox? No: Food security depends (among other factors) on whether (or not) the population can make effective use of land. I argue that the main causes of food insecurity in Central Asia are structural or systematic: the causes are related to the political economy, including the role of the state in the rural economy; access to arable land; and, freedom to farm. In Central Asia, the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) is active in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, already since many years. While this organisation is doing really important work, the organisation primarily focuses on direct needs.

The Central Asian republics have made great progress in combating malnutrition in the past decade. Yet it remains a point in need of attention, particularly where children are concerned.

Of the Central Asian countries, the situation is most critical in Tajikistan, where undernourishment reached a high of 30 percent of the population in 2016 (FAO, 2017) and only around 25 percent of the rural population is food secure. In 2016, over 25 percent of children in Tajikistan were stunted.

In Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the situation seems less dramatic, with undernourishment around 6 percent. Nevertheless, over 10 percent of children in these countries were stunted in 2016.

According to a FAO report, in Turkmenistan, only 5.5 percent of the population was undernourished in 2016, and around 10 percent of children were stunted.

Kazakhstan performs best regarding nutrition: less than 3 percent of the population was undernourished in 2016. The country also made most improvements in terms of food (in)security of young children; in 2005, around 18 percent of children were stunted, while in 2016, “only” 8 percent of children were stunted.

How did the republics reform the agricultural system after the collapse of the kolkhozes?

The pace and extent of reforms varied widely between the different countries. Land reform was a top-down process in all five Central Asian republics, in which the pressure exerted by international donors played a role, particularly in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Let us begin with some general points. First, individualization of farming has taken place throughout the Central Asian region, but privatization of land has only taken place in Kazakhstan (where private ownership was recognized in 2003) and in Kyrgyzstan (where private ownership has been recognized since 1998, although the moratorium on the sale of land was only lifted in 2001). In Turkmenistan, private ownership is recognized, but in reality, use rights to land are the most common tenure arrangement. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the state remains the sole owner of land. Under state law, only leasehold and user rights of land are possible.

Second, in most CARs, land reform and farm restructuring has developed stepwise. That is, the former Soviet state (sovkhozes) and collective farms (kolkhozes) were most often initially reformed into share-based collective or cooperative farms or joint-stock holdings. Shareholders were eligible to take land out of these larger farms and set up their own individual farms. Thus, the process of land reform in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) involved the distribution of land to former kolkhoz and sovkhoz workers. Land reform was different in Central and Eastern Europe, where restitution of ownership took place; land was returned to former owners. As a result of farm restructuring, average farm sizes have decreased in all the CARs, but there are important differences. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the average farm size is less than five hectares; in Kazakhstan, farms are relatively large, averaging over 300 hectares. In Uzbekistan, after an initial downsizing of farm holdings, the average farm size has increased again as the result of a farm consolidation policy promulgated in 2008.

Third, in all the Central Asian republics, agricultural output contracted in the 1990s, in tandem with an overall economic downturn. Throughout post-Soviet Central Asia, the early 1990s were a difficult period. Access to land was crucial for rural dwellers in those years, and in some of the Central Asian republics, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the government provided rural dwellers with additional land (on top of the household plot) in order to secure rural households’ subsistence needs. In general, the Central Asian region witnessed a “reagrarianization and de-monetization” in response to economic hardship. People returned to the land to survive, and barter became a principal means of obtaining resources and food in the harsh period immediately after independence. Recovery took place in the late 1990s (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were relatively early, as there was a turnaround in Kyrgyzstan in 1995 and in Uzbekistan in 1996).

Fourth, throughout the region, the contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy has significantly declined.

In the case of Tajikistan, the agricultural sector accounted for over 35 percent of the country’s GDP in 1995. In 2015, this figure was around 22 percent.

This trend is even more marked in Kyrgyzstan, where the agrarian economy’s contribution to GDP declined from just over 40 percent in 1995 to around 15 percent in 2015. (Note that the high percentage of 40 percent in 1995 might be explained by the fact that other economic sectors contracted comparatively more, thus increasing the relative importance of the agrarian economy.)

In Uzbekistan, the agricultural sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP declined from 28 percent to 17 percent; in Kazakhstan, from 12 percent to 5 percent; and in Turkmenistan from 16 percent to 9 percent. In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, the extractive industries (oil, gas, gold, etc.) have partly replaced the agricultural sector in terms of contribution to the national economy.

Fifth, outside of the primarily commercial farm sector, crop production on household plots has remained of importance throughout Central Asia. As I noted, food production on household plots was important in the 1990s, but it had likewise been pivotal under Soviet rule. In the Soviet period, the production of food crops on household plots primarily served to meet subsistence needs, but a significant part of production (the surplus) was sold in urban markets. It provided kolkhozniks with an additional source of income to supplement the income earned from work on the kolkhoz or sovkhoz. According to Soviet historians, some produce from household plots was exported from southwestern Tajikistan all the way to Siberia! Productivity on household plots was much higher than production on large-scale Soviet farms. In Tajikistan, household plot production accounted for around 30 percent of total agricultural output in the late 1980s. To this day, rural households contribute a significant share of total agricultural output, even though they cultivate a small percentage of total arable land. Their production is labor-intensive, in contrast to extensive agricultural production systems. In Tajikistan, household plot production nowadays accounts for over 60 percent of total agricultural output. In animal husbandry—that is, the production of dairy products and meat—in particular, rural households play an important role. Most rural dwellers have a few cows and/or sheep. Large dairy-producing farms hardly exist in Central Asia, though there are large-scale livestock farms in Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the (semi-) nomadic groups in the region tend to have large numbers of sheep, as well as some horses.

Large dairy-producing farms hardly exist in Central Asia.

Having said all this, let us turn to look at the pace and extent of land reform and farm restructuring in Central Asia. In the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan became the first to adopt a series of reforms regarding land tenure, due in large part to pressure from international donors. Then-president Akaev wanted to court Western investment, as the cash-strapped state urgently needed capital after the economic downturn of the early 1990s, and was susceptible to donor pressure. The multilateral institutions demanded a rapid privatization and liberalization of the agrarian economy, to which the government quickly responded with restructuring. Landed wealth was also relatively dispersed, far more so than in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Revenues from farming did not come from one agricultural commodity, i.e. wealth from farming was not concentrated and/or dependent on large farm structures, which meant that the post-Soviet regime had little interest to contain the large Soviet farms. This was different in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, where cotton was of primary importance for the economy. Notably, Kyrgyzstan also saw agricultural recovery relatively early (1995) compared to the other CARs. Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, many new small-scale independent farms lacked the support of essential institutions and infrastructure. The farm support services had been disrupted, and those institutions that still existed were adapted to the (former) large-scale production systems. As a result, the newly established individual farms faced difficulties in producing and marketing crops.

In contrast to the Kyrgyz Republic, reforms have been incremental in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where significant state control over the agrarian sector has been maintained to this day. Relatively resource-rich as they are, the Uzbek and Turkmen states were not dependent on foreign aid like Kyrgyzstan. What is more, in both countries (and in fact, also in Tajikistan), the cotton economy was of high importance to these countries’ economies. Revenue streams were controlled by the post-Soviet regime.By upholding state ownership over land and state control over the agrarian economy, these revenue streams could be safeguarded. Farm privatization and an end to the planned economy, by contrast, might have significantly affected cotton output, particularly if farmers had autonomy, i.e. “freedom to farm.”

Considering the importance of particular crops to these countries’ economies, as well as the dispersion of (landed) wealth, we can understand why the Uzbek government, say, has only gradually reformed the agrarian sector and only step-wise restructured the former sovkhozes and kolkhozes, initially into so-called “shirkats” and later into commercial farms (“fermers”). The quota system still functions in Uzbekistan, primarily for wheat and cotton. In 2008, the Uzbek government adopted a new policy and began to reconsolidate farmland, thus increasing average farm size. Farms were merged, a process in which some fermers were forced to give up farming. This makes the reform path of Uzbekistan quite unique (although there was also a brief period in Kazakhstan, in 2005, when small farms were merged). It will be interesting to follow changes in the Uzbek agrarian economy in the coming years, since under President Mirziyoyev there is widespread talk of a profound change, particularly with regard to the cotton sector. The most important question, in my view, is how such changes will affect rural development and wellbeing, as changes in the agrarian economy have direct implications for rural livelihoods. For instance, will an end to forced labor and wage increases in the agrarian economy attract former labor migrants? Will crop diversification improve food security?

Kazakhstan has taken a different approach to farm restructuring, leading to a highly regionalized pattern of reform. The large-scale collective and state farms that were specialized in wheat production in Kazakhstan’s northern regions have been restructured, and there is now a tripartite structure of extremely large agro-holdings (sometimes far more than 10,000 hectares), individual farm enterprises (around 500 hectares), and household plot production. The large agro-holdings dominate in the grain sector in northern Kazakhstan. Their operations are highly mechanized, in contrast to most smaller-scale farms in the rest of Central Asia. This grain belt, in particular, acts as the breadbasket of the region. In southern Kazakhstan, smaller-scale farm enterprises dominate the countryside. These farm holdings focus on a larger variety of crops, often including cotton and horticulture in addition to wheat.

The situation in Tajikistan is different from the reform pathways of the other republics—or, we could argue, there is a blend of different reform pathways, since Tajikistan has a diversified geography, with highland farms of two hectares or less and lowland farms of 300 hectares or more. The average size of a so-called “dehqon farm” is now below five hectares. As in Kyrgyzstan, international donors have played an important role in shaping the process of agrarian change in Tajikistan. While there was a series of decrees adopted in 1992, reforms were stalled by the country’s civil war. From the late 1990s on, international donors exerted significant pressure on the Tajik state to reform the agrarian economy. Yet the government feared that individualization and state withdrawal would mean the demise of the cotton economy—which, as in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, was of great importance to the national economy. In response, the government transformed the state cotton procurement system into a private procurement system. This system remained intact until the late 2000s. Meanwhile, over the years, the large-scale kolkhozes and sovkhozes were restructured and ceased to exist. Yet initially, many large farms were merely renamed, like in Uzbekistan. It was a sign on the door, and in terms of ownership, management and decision-making, there was little change. There were a few pilot projects initiated by international donors, focused on the restructuring of large farms into individual dehqon farms. Yet outside of these pilot projects, many ordinary rural dwellers were discouraged from starting a farm. If people did so, they—like their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan—faced obstacles: there were hardly any farm support services, and markets were not prepared to deal with such smaller-scale farms. This was the process in Tajikistan’s lowlands.

The situation was different in Tajikistan’s highlands, where in Gorno-Badakhshan, for instance, rapid individualization took place in the mid-1990s (initially without formalization). This likewise occurred with the help of a donor (the Aga Khan Foundation), but individualization was much easier to implement in the highlands because the small-scale production plots in mountainous areas had always more or less performed as individual production units.

Hence, in order to understand land reform and farm restructuring, we need to look at countries’ resource endowments and geographic factors, as well as the dispersion of (landed) wealth and the relative importance of particular agricultural commodities for the countries’ economies. At the same time, we need to attend to local land politics. For instance, numerous policies and decrees promulgated in Tajikistan give the impression that farmers are independent and autonomous in selecting their own crops, although at the local level, authorities still try to exert pressure on farmers and intervene in decision-making over cropping patterns. Similar dynamics are visible in Uzbekistan: although President Mirziyoyev has initiated various changes, local land politics and local power relations have not changed radically. Institutional change will not happen overnight, particularly when the same people are still in power.

Irna Hofman on a fieldwork.

Who benefitted from the transition from the kolkhozes to the private sector and who lost?

The restructuring of the former Soviet farms evolved differently not only in different CARs, but also within countries. This makes it difficult to make general statements about the “winners and losers” of reform.

There are people who were able to set up a farm, and those who could not. Some also did not want to establish a commercial farm. You could argue that the first group of people could be classified as the “winners,” and the others as people who lost. It is evident that in Central Asia, post-socialist agrarian change has pushed many people from the agrarian economy into uncertain migratory livelihoods, (also) since there are few off-farm employment opportunities in the countryside. So, one might be tempted to conclude that the migrants are the ones who lost. Yet not all people wanted to establish an individual farm. Even more, within the farming population one can observe a differentiation. What I observed in my research, is that not all farmers can be regarded as “winners” of the agrarian transformation. In some instances, land is a liability, rather than an asset, as, for instance, some farmland in Tajikistan is indebted. And, where quota systems still exist, you could say that farmers are tenants, rather than independent farmers. They are only nominally independent, and many cannot live from farming alone. If you walk through a random village, it is not farmers or farm workers who construct new buildings. Average monthly income in the agricultural sector of Tajikistan is around three times lower than the average income in the country. It is families with migrating family members who are able to renovate their house (though note that, remittances have decreased in the past couple of years due to the Russian economic crisis).

Individuals who were well-connected at the onset of independence and farm reform, such as brigadiers and former farm chairmen, were privileged in gaining access to land during farm restructuring. They have been able to profit from farming. My findings are reminiscent of observations by scholars working in other post-socialist countries, such as Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. With land reform, well-connected individuals could obtain farm assets (like tractors) and the best fields, with relatively fertile soil, good access to water, etc. The more ordinary kolkhozniks had to queue to obtain farmland, and sometimes had to wait a long time before they could apply to the district authorities to establish their own individual farm.

As a result, farm restructuring propelled social differentiation (i.e., inequality). The transformation from collective farming to individual farming provided some well-connected individuals with the possibility to capture valuable farm assets and capital, leaving the less fertile fields with the less well-connected rural households.

The capturing of valuable farm assets does not relate only to assets on the ground, but also to capital flows. In Tajikistan, the change from state procurement of cotton to a private procurement system has endowed politically well-connected individuals with control over the cotton production complex. Whereas they have been able to extract substantial revenues from cotton production, cotton itself is associated with rural poverty in Tajikistan.

Is the idea of kolkhozes still relevant?

The agricultural sector has transformed significantly in the past few years, but remnants of the kolkhozes remain, and people still identify with the place that once formed their kolkhoz. In some places, successors to kolkhozes still function, and people continue to name these farms after their kolkhoz. I was surprised to learn, in one of my case studies, that the successor to the kolkhoz still employed an accountant and an agronomist.

The kolkhoz still is very important to older generations’ “sense of belonging” and social cohesion

In the Soviet Union, the large-scale kolkhozes and sovkhozes were “total social institutions”: they provided kolkhozniks with healthcare and education, and many had a “club” or a cinema. With farm reform, the Central Asian governments have become responsible for social security, education, and healthcare. In some instances, the relatively larger-scale individual farms continue to contribute to local communities, but to a much lesser extent than the kolkhozes did. In some localities, collective farm work is also still very important, related to rural households’ survival and wellbeing. There (still) is a lot of exchange of resources and labour within the village. The kolkhozes have disappeared as production entities, but some collective structures have continued, and I would say, yes, the idea of the kolkhoz is still relevant. Not least as a marker of people’s identity. While young people (born and raised in the 1990s and later) most often refer to village names, and they experience another form of affiliation or attachment, the kolkhoz still is very important to older generations’ “sense of belonging” and social cohesion. The kolkhoz or sovkhoz has marked people’s life. In one district of southwest Tajikistan where I was conducting fieldwork, I even struggled to find a shared taxi to my host family if I mentioned the village name, as localities were only known as Sovkhoz #1, Sovkhoz #2, etc.

Do small farmers remain vulnerable?

I find it difficult to generalize. It is evident that rural household plot production is important to total agricultural output. Some scholars therefore attribute the recovery of the agricultural sector in Central Asia to the fragmentation of farm holdings. In general, smallholders’ productivity is higher than that of large-scale farms. Based on my own research in lowland Tajikistan, I would argue that many smallholders (that is, dehqon farms, not ordinary rural households) still face difficulties, not least because many of them are still pressured to cultivate cotton, a crop that does not benefit them at all. One sign that the agrarian economy fails to provide people with a meaningful livelihood is the prevalence of labor migration in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. People cannot live from farming alone, and off-farm employment opportunities in the countryside are limited.

Overall, there are still some barriers that stifle the development of smallholder farming in Central Asia. What happened initially in Kyrgyzstan, but also characterizes the farm sector in Tajikistan, is that small-scale farmers lack institutional support. The institutional environment required to make small-scale farming successful—credit institutions (banks), infrastructure, market outlets, and extension services—is still inadequate. Many new individual farmers are unfamiliar with running an individual enterprise, which includes duties such as bookkeeping, input selection, and negotiating market prices. As a result, they are highly dependent on local and district authorities regarding agronomic advice and input use, and on middlemen when it comes to marketing their crops. They are left to the vagaries of the market.

Rural household plot production is important to total agricultural output.

In the news, we sometimes see farmers in the Central Asian republics return to pre-Soviet methods of cultivation and planting due to the lack of inputs the kolkhozes had. What can we say about the use of new technologies (drones, service apps, lab worms, etc.) in the region’s agricultural sector?

There was relatively limited mechanization of farming in most of Soviet Central Asia. High population density meant a large labor force, and manual labor in the cotton fields continued, even though the Soviet leadership had intended to increase the mechanization of farming in the region. Local leadership had other priorities.

This was different in some regions, such as the grain belt in north Kazakhstan, where mechanization—such as combine harvesters for grain production—was prominent. Thanks to heavy investment in that region, quite innovative techniques characterize farming in this region today, with modern zero-tillage equipment and satellite-controlled precision farming technology.

Yet in most of Central Asia, manual labor continues to predominate. Weeding and harvesting in vegetable and cotton fields is done by hand. There is a general shortage of machinery (like combine harvesters, tractors, and lorries), which severely hampers agrarian development. Queuing for machinery is frequent, with implications for productivity.

Importantly, most of the recent developments in innovation and extension services in Central Asia—at least in Tajikistan—have been donor-driven. The state has progressively divested from the agricultural sector since 1991, with significant implications for agricultural research and development.

Throughout Central Asia, resources for agricultural research and development declined after 1991, and support services were disrupted. This lack of state investment has had significant implications for input use (for instance, seeds) and for farm work and productivity in general. Many agronomists working in rural Central Asia were trained under Soviet rule. They might have great knowledge of cotton-growing and local irrigation systems, but they lack insights about other crops and production techniques.  Moreover, most agronomists are near retirement age and there are hardly any young people interested in the profession.

The disruption of support services and deterioration of input markets also relates to fertilizers and pesticides. Under Soviet rule, the large-scale farms were supplied with chemical inputs without difficulty. Use of these chemical inputs (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) fertilizers, as well as pesticides), is generally lower today than it was during the Soviet era. Part of the reason for this is that farmers try to economize on input use. Moreover, most countries have to import fertilizers and pesticides. In recent years, fertilizers and pesticides used in Tajikistan have been imported from Uzbekistan, Russia, Pakistan, and China, although a Chinese venture has recently invested in the rehabilitation of an old fertilizer plant in Tajikistan. Less use of chemical inputs might be good—I am an advocate of organic farming—but it would require a different approach to farming. It means farmers need to pay more attention to soil fertility, weeding, and the crop production cycle in general in order to obtain a high yield. Use of organic fertilizers such as animal dung is low in Central Asia, given that most people only own one or two cows and use animal dung as a source of fuel for household needs rather than as fertilizer.

What can we say about the growing presence of Chinese farms in the region?

The Chinese presence has been growing in Central Asia since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also called One Belt One Road (OBOR). There is still a lot of speculation and distrust when it comes to Chinese farm enterprises in Central Asia. Policymakers and academics question the drivers behind Chinese enterprises in Central Asia: is it politics or profits?

Overall, there are several developments taking place in Central Asia. First of all, there are Chinese enterprises that try to gain access to the ground, i.e., lease farmland in Central Asia. This has happened in Tajikistan, and I am uncertain to what extent investments have also materialized in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I have heard that there are Chinese farmers in eastern Kazakhstan, but on-the-ground research is necessary to determine whether this is true. Concerning land investments, there are smaller-scale farms set up by Chinese individuals and Chinese families—which tend to remain under the radar—and larger-scale investments, which attract (media) attention. Second, there is a substantial influx of Chinese agricultural commodities into the region, by which I mainly refer to farm inputs: seeds, fertilizers, and production techniques. There is a great demand in Central Asia for quality seeds and other inputs. I was told recently that Chinese companies are involved in 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s cotton cultivation through joint production. Third, together with the influx of agricultural inputs, there are techniques and specific knowledge being exported to the Central Asian region. In Tajikistan, so-called “Chinese greenhouses” have become very popular in the past few years. There are also some partnerships between Chinese and Central Asian research institutes. As such, the opening up of borders has a significant impact on the agrarian sectors of Central Asian republics. China-Central Asia trade and investments in the agricultural sphere affect agricultural output, input use, and farm knowledge. At the end of the chain, as end consumers and producers, rural households also experience the influx of Chinese farm enterprises, Chinese inputs, and knowledge and techniques.

So what is behind the growth of Chinese actors in Central Asian agriculture? For one, it is a well-known fact that the Chinese government is concerned with social stability in the region. The situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is closely followed by the Chinese government, and a presence on the ground could provide the Chinese government with direct up-to-date information and a mechanism of control. At the same time, sustaining domestic economic growth is important for the Chinese government, which might explain why the Chinese government encourages Chinese companies to go overseas. Indeed, the Chinese state plays an important role in stimulating Chinese enterprises to commence operations abroad, and there is also a lot of individually initiated entrepreneurship (these individuals act without much governmental support). Importantly, it is mainly the larger-scale projects run by Chinese companies that attract attention. Smaller-scale investments/acquisitions receive less attention, as I have observed in my own research on Chinese farmland investments in Tajikistan.

In my research, I have found that Chinese farms in Central Asia are driven primarily by commercial motives.

In my research, I have found that Chinese farms in Central Asia are driven primarily by commercial motives. For instance, there are small-scale, individually initiated farms run by Chinese individuals and families who have observed a niche in the Central Asian economy. They focus primarily on crop production and serve the small but growing Chinese community in Central Asia.

Larger-scale Chinese land acquisitions are also commercially-oriented. One example is a Chinese farm business I studied in Tajikistan. This farm, which is in fact a joint venture of two Chinese farm enterprises from China’s Henan province, is cultivating land in southwest Tajikistan on an increasing scale. The two companies involved in the venture focus on cotton and wheat (seeds and crops) and vegetables (seeds and crops). It is evident that the export of technology and agricultural inputs plays an important role in this larger-scale project. The Chinese company introduces new crops and sells production on the market in Dushanbe,

Notably, developments have continued since I left the field in 2015. I am eager to return to see how the situation has changed, and I am very much interested to follow developments throughout Central Asia. While traveling in Kyrgyzstan last year, I noticed billboards announcing a Chinese-Kyrgyz cooperation in farming and I have read that Chinese farm enterprises have begun cotton production in Tajikistan’s Dangara district and are involved in the Special Economic Zone in that district. Furthermore, I assume that the Chinese farm business that I studied before has continued to expand its operations. I expect that the Chinese presence in the Central Asian countryside will increase in the coming years.


All photos by
Irna Hofman

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