The harvest for Uzbekistan’s perhaps most famous export, silkworm cocoons, has begun in earnest and with the usual concern for rights violations that the ancient industry brings with it.
Silkworm breeders gather vast amounts of cocoons every year — as much 26,000 tons in 2015, according to official figures. That puts Uzbekistan in third place in global silkworm cocoon production, behind China and India.
Some aspects of the harvest season are reported upon in earnest by state media. UzA news agency carried a report from one of the main sources of the commodity, in the Bukhara region.
“Silkworm breeders in the Jondor district of Bukhara region plan to harvest 419 tons of this valuable material,” UzA reported on May 24.
The main official in charge of a raw silk gathering facility, Naim Sodikov, said supply agreements have been signed with 290 farming enterprises.
But as the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights revealed in a recent report on the silk industry in Uzbekistan, the business relies on forced labor that often deprives farmers of deserved levels of income.
“The central government establishes cocoon production policy, prices, and annual silk production targets, and requires regional- and district-level officials to ensure targets are met. Local officials use coercion, including threatening farmers that they will lose their land, to force farmers and public-sector institutions to fulfill annual silk quotas,” the report stated. “Farmers, in turn, oblige family members, including children, or pay local laborers to assist in the cultivation of silkworm cocoons to meet required production quotas and avoid penalties.”
Uzbekistan is trying to give farmers a helping hand as the country seeks to lessen its dependence on cotton-growing and find much-needed sources of revenue.
Local media reported last week that as of July 1, companies and private entrepreneurs holding the proper permits could once again begin to export fruits and vegetables by road. The government in September slapped a ban on trucks taking produce out of the country, leaving all but a select few only the costly alternative of getting their wares out by air or railway freight.
Those measures were taken to avoid Uzbek wares being re-exported onward to lucrative markets like Russia by companies in Kazakhstan. In November 2014, deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov told a government meeting that the amount of Uzbek produce being exported to Russia had fallen by 10 percent because of unfavorable tariffs barriers created by the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
That state of affairs in turn led to the creation of various opaque and illegal schemes, Azimov said. Fruit and vegetables were first exported to Kazakhstan, where companies would label the goods as Kazakh and then sell them on to Russia and benefit from favorable tariffs for produce cultivated with the EEU, a bloc that Uzbekistan has resisted joining. That set Uzbekistan the challenge of trying to thwart middlemen in Kazakhstan and dealing directly with Russia.
It is something of a myth that state media in closed countries with ever-active domestic propaganda machines, such as Turkmenistan, project only optimism and radiance.
The president of Turkmenistan is rarely even remotely happy with his government’s work, and it is the state of agriculture that has raised his hackles this time around.
Speaking at his weekly Monday videoconference with regional leaders, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on October 12 tore strips off various provincial chiefs.
First up with a report on winter wheat sowing and cotton harvesting was Akhal provincial governor Annageldi Yazmyradov, who was one of the puppet presidential candidates in the 2012 election. The Akhal province is where the bulk of the current elite are drawn from and the region inside which the capital, Ashgabat, is located.
Berdymukhamedov complained that Yazmyradov, who has a background in agriculture and served as water resources minister between 2008 and 2012, is not doing enough. Wheat-sowing is behind schedule in several districts and cotton harvesting going slowly in others, the president said, demanding answers for why this might be happening.
The situation appears similarly unsatisfactory in the western Balkan province, but the message was a little mixed there.
While exhorting Balkan governor Durdy Durdyev to make better use of resources at his disposal to ensure wheat-sowing goes according to plan, Berdymukhamedov also demanded no expense be spared in preparing for the opening of a museum and monument to national poet Magtymguly, who is revered as the founder of the modern Turkmen language.
Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
Georgia has a surplus of farmland and not enough farmers to work it. The Indian region of Punjab has too many farmers and not enough affordable land to keep them occupied. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Punjabi farmers are increasingly being found tilling Georgian soil. As the Guardian's Jason Burke reports, agents in Punjab are starting to do a brisk business in Georgian land deals. From his report:
The sun dips, the cattle low as they are driven back to the farms and a telephone rings with a Bollywood soundtrack tone. Tujinder Singh is calling the sarpanch – the elected head – of Manochahal, his native village 30 miles from India's western border.
The conversation – about crops, prices, weather and mendacious middlemen – is like a million or so similar early-evening calls placed by farmers across south Asia. Except that the land that Singh is now tilling is in Georgia, the small mountain nation in the Caucasus.
Singh, 38, is one of a new wave of farmers pioneering one of the world's more unlikely migrations. During a recent spell as a cook in Düsseldorf, Germany, he heard about thousands of acres of fertile land on former collective farms lying fallow in Georgia for want of manpower.
The contrast with his native Punjab, with its surging population and high land prices, was striking. So two months ago, he and three friends flew from Amritsar to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to seal a deal for the lease of 50 hectares. Back for a short break and some tandoori chicken, Singh said he was very happy with the move, even if he remains slightly vague about the geography of his new home.
"We are paying $950 [£580] for each hectare for a 99-year lease. You'd not get much for that in the Punjab. I'm not sure if the farm is in the north or south but it is sort of over by Turkey and Armenia," he said.
Last week, Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister set some ambitious goals for the country’s farming sector: On July 20, Omurbek Babanov told hundreds of local officials that Kyrgyzstan must become a “regional leader” in agriculture, not just fully meeting domestic demand, but exporting 90 percent of its produce to cover “the needs of neighboring states.”
For now, however, this vision looks like a mirage in the summer haze.
Due to this year’s high temperatures and low rainfall, “Kyrgyzstan could lose between 50 percent and 70 percent of its crops” and “the country’s livestock industry may have absolutely no feed this winter,” an industry news website, AllAboutFeed.net, said in a July 19 report, citing unnamed experts.
The Agriculture Ministry expects this year’s domestic wheat production to cover slightly more than half of Kyrgyzstan’s needs, predicting a harvest of 650,000 metric tons versus an estimated food-security minimum of nearly 1.1 million tons plus another 177,000 tons in feed. This would be close to a 20 percent drop in production from 2011, when, according to the National Statistics Committee, the wheat harvest totaled nearly 800,000 tons.