By Lola Olimova and Shamsiddin Rizoev in Dushanbe (RCA No. 553, 24-Oct-08)
"Look at what's happening here!" says Professor Inom Asrorov in dismay. "We're importing tea, grain, oil and even fruit. And it's made us highly dependent on world food prices."
Although the professor is deputy director of Tajikistan's Institute of Economics, his concerns are far from academic - they go to the heart of a crisis facing the poorest of the five Central Asian states.
As a major importer of basic commodities, Tajikistan has found itself more vulnerable than most countries to the rise in world prices for both food and fuel in recent months.
Many economists believe the country could soon face a decline in revenues as the international financial crisis reduces the spending power of donors and investors. (See Tajik Economists Fear Impact of Global Crisis, RCA No. 552, 15-Oct-08.)
Against this difficult backdrop, Professor Asrorov highlights a particularly alarming trend - the kinds of foodstuffs he listed are things that Tajikistan should be able to produce for itself even in times of trouble. Instead, home-grown fruit and vegetables are disappearing, replaced by imports which are steadily more expensive.
FROM FOOD PRODUCER TO IMPORTER
Tajikistan imports some 60 per cent of the grain and flour its population consumes, mainly from Russia and Kazakstan. Asrorov estimates that the country needs 1.5 million tons of various grains a year and currently grows between 450,000 and 600,000 tons.
Those countries plus Uzbekistan, Iran and China are also the source of many other imported food items.
Until last year, the Tajiks produced all the fruit and vegetables and a good proportion of the meat and dairy products they needed. That has started to change, and these items, too, are now being imported.
Rahmon Shukurov, who lectures at Tajikistan's Agrarian University as well as working on international biodiversity projects, says it actually works out cheaper to import foodstuffs.
"There are reports of our [Tajik] businessmen renting land and growing vegetables in Uzbekistan, where rent is cheaper and fertilisers and fuel are cheaper," he said. "It's significantly cheaper to grow and transport tomatoes from Iran than to grow them here. They are even importing greens from Afghanistan now.
The reasons for the decline in agricultural production are not new - lack of arable land, soil degradation, an over-dependence on cotton which displaces edible crops, the lack of manpower in rural communities, and seasonal variables such as last winter's unusually harsh climatic conditions.
But the confluence of all these factors in a worsening economic climate could create a food crisis for Tajikistan, according to some experts.
For the moment, the markets are still full of food, although because much of it is imported, it is beyond the reach of many Tajiks.
"There are vegetables, fruit and grain at the markets, but not everyone can afford to buy as much as they need," Professor Asrorov told IWPR.
He added that food import volumes were far higher than is desirable for economic stability.
These imports are having a serious impact on overall price levels. The statistical agency of the Commonwealth of Independent States recently said year-on-year inflation for the eight months from January to August stood at 31 per cent. That represents a substantial increase even on the latest International Monetary Fund, IMF, forecast of just under 22 per cent for 2008, and is higher than the inflation observed in any other Central Asian state.
Imomali Akai is typical of the kind of person hardest hit by price rises. Although at 60 he is near retirement age, he works from dawn to dusk as porter at a city market in the capital Dushanbe.
"I used to get a wage of 100 roubles [a month] and I could save 30 or 40 for other things," he said. "Now I've only got enough to buy flour. Life has become tough."
BASIC CROPS NOW HARDER TO PRODUCE
With its hot summers, Tajikistan used to be famous for citrus fruits, grapes and other fresh fruit vegetables. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the produce would be transported to other parts of the country, but in subsequent years - which in Tajikistan's case was aggravated by the bloody civil war of 1992-97 -the old economic and transport links were broken. As a result, until recently, Tajikistan had a surplus of unexported fruit which sold for next to nothing in peak season.
However, the overall decline in agriculture means many farmers are struggling to produce even the basics.
Rahim Abdullaev, 46, lives in the Bokhtar district of Khatlon region in southern Tajikistan, and earns a living by working in a bakery selling the traditional flat bread that is a staple item for Tajiks. But his monthly wages are only enough to buy half the amount of flour he needs to support an extended family of 18, for whom he is the main breadwinner.
Abdullaev counts himself lucky for two reasons - the bakery owner gives him flour on credit, and he has relatives working in Russia who send back money to keep the family afloat.
The family has some land on which they grow fruit and vegetables and keep a couple of cows for the milk. In earlier day, they lived better by growing peaches, apricots, apples and pears. But the orchards were badly damaged when the village was torched by paramilitaries during the civil war.
Even now, Abdullaev says, yields are getting worse and worse. This year, he had to make four attempts to plant tomatoes as they became infested with parasites.
"Everything is very expensive at the market, so we decided to plant potatos to feed the family. We planted them in spring but there were no rains so the harvest was small and we're going to have to buy in more potatoes for the winter," said Abdullaev, "Without the help we get from over there [labour migrants in Russa] we'd never be able to make ends meet."
The family's basic diet consists of bread and dairy products and occasionally rice. They eat meat only on holidays, or when guests visit, as the Tajik tradition of hospitality demands.
Tajikistan has unfavourable starting conditions for agriculture. Over 90 of the country consists of mountains so there is very little flat arable land to start with. Around 20 per cent of the country is used for agriculture and another 10 per cent or so for pasture.
Overuse of the limited land available has led to degradation of the soil. The Central Asian Countries Initiative for Land Management, a donor-funded regional project, estimates that 97 per cent of Tajik farmland has been harmed by poor irrigation practices and salination. In the arid flatlands of north and south Tajikistan, most of the land used to be artificially irrigated but that is no longer the case as water systems have fallen into disrepair and often there is no electricity to drive the pumps.
Shukurov says rising subsoil waters are now a major problem. This is especially true around Qorghan Tepa in southwestern Tajikistan - traditionally the main production area for fruit and vegetables.
"In a number of districts in that [Qorghan Tepa] zone, subsoil water levels are so high that it's even becoming a danger to human habitation," he said. "For vegetables, it's just death."
Shukurov explained that drainage systems are no longer working, which leads to salination and makes previously productive farmland no longer usable.
Tajikistan has to import fuel, fertiliser, pesticides and parts for now aging farm machinery, the rising costs of which make running a farm less and less sustainable. And because farmers do not have the money to buy pesticides, their crops are vulnerable to infestation.
"In the last few years, whitefly has become endemic there [Qorghan Tepa area] doing colossal harm to vegetables and other plants. There just aren't the funds to wage a massive war on it in this country," said Shukurov.
Another major pest affecting large swathes of southern Tajikistan is the locust, which forms massive swarms and destroys cropland wholesale. (For more on the annual locust invasion, see Central Asia's Poorest States in Crisis, RCA No. 532, 15-Feb-08.)
There is little that can be done to prevent the same happening again if the coming winter is another cold one. But economists say better management of the sector and more considered use of the land available could begin to turn things round in the longer term.
Professor Umarov wants to see greater application of science in farming to make it more productive.
"Yields must be increased," he said. "To achieve that we need qualified staff.... Agronomists, agrochemists and land amelioration experts."
Asrorov agreed, saying that land needed to be used more effectively, and recommended that "hillsides should be used for orchards and vines, and not for wheat, which exhausts the soil and leads to wind erosion".
Lola Olimova is IWPR editor in Tajikistan. Shamsiddin Rizoev is an IWPR-trained journalist in Dushanbe.