Wednesday, 31 October 2007

THE BATTLE FOR TAJIKISTAN’S WHITE GOLD

Published in Field Reports

By Sergey Medrea (10/31/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In the local media, Soviet-style accounts given by the heads of districts and jamoats (the lowest tier of local government) on the volume of harvested cotton and the percentage of the plan fulfilled are often found. In 2006, the harvest amounted to a little over 440,000 tons. This year, authorities set the quota at 550,000 tons before the rain season starts.

In the local media, Soviet-style accounts given by the heads of districts and jamoats (the lowest tier of local government) on the volume of harvested cotton and the percentage of the plan fulfilled are often found. In 2006, the harvest amounted to a little over 440,000 tons. This year, authorities set the quota at 550,000 tons before the rain season starts. There are several government initiatives already underway that aim to reduce exploitative tendencies toward school children and insure a system of direct financial access to bank loans and credits to the farmers.

The battle for cotton harvest among the district authorities is at its peak, with heads of districts and jamoats competing to become the fastest and most efficient in cotton picking. Though farms in Tajikistan are privately owned, the land the farmers work is still leased from the state. Theoretically, farmers can choose what to plant and whom to sell to, but, in reality, farmers are more or less obliged to grow the amount of cotton the government instructed them to produce and sell it to the state at artificially low prices. Hence, farmers overwhelmingly face a continued pressure from above to meet high production targets, because local authorities are roped into ensuring Soviet-style plans are fulfilled.

Local authorities often employ various excessive methods to gather the largest amounts of raw cotton in the shortest time and thus not to fall into disfavor. In some districts of Tajikistan, markets and shops are being closed so that market workers can help pick the cotton. Local officials deny giving orders to people in the markets, and insist that the people are volunteering to help the farmers. In one district, members of the mosque were asked to help in the fields under threat of closing the mosque.

During the working session of the parliament on September 14, President Emomali Rahmon once again banned the practice of children studying in secondary schools being sent to work in cotton picking during school time. The Tajik Ministry of Education announced that it will supervise the implementation of the prohibition.

However, as often happens, it is easier to order than to implement: despite the presidential decree, it is often the case that students not only from universities but also from secondary schools volunteer to work most of the autumn on the cotton fields instead of studying. Theoretically, such volunteers can be expelled from schools and universities they attend if they refuse to work in the field. Students are being paid for their work, but most of the time money “goes” directly to the school and university funds, for so-called new books, and repairing works. Very often, the money does not reach the intended recipients.

Local authorities are forced to resort to the assistance of students and the local population for several reasons. First, they are under pressure to fulfill the state planned targets; second, the farmers do not have enough human resources to accomplish the given targets. Farmers in Tajikistan are the last people to be blamed; they chronically suffer from insufficient resources, sometimes even the minimum necessary for subsistence. Most of the privately owned farms in Tajikistan become dependent on entities called “futures companies.” These companies offer farmers much-needed credits and bridging loans, meanwhile taking full advantage of the desperate farmers, and charging high rates for what often turns out to be low-quality seeds, stale fertilizer and insufficient equipment. “Futures companies” are the lenders to desperate farmers who become slaves because they have no prospect of repaying debts.

Since the government cannot provide any credit or finance programs, it leaves the overwhelming number of private farmers without any way to repair the crumbling infrastructure of their farms or to obtain new equipment, thus there is a growing dependency on the “futures companies.” Current reports show that farmers owe the “futures companies” ca. $400 millions. The Government of Tajikistan is hoping to liquidate the debt with the help of international organizations. The introduction of the new system was announced by Emomali Rahmon in parliament on October 16. According to the head of the Ministry of Agriculture, starting in 2008, farmers will be financed directly by banks. International development organizations, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, were already working for several years in an attempt to create and facilitate direct access of farmers to bank loans and credits. It is hoped that a better access to monetary resources will improve the overall situation of the farmers, and in the long run eradicate the need for additional unpaid labor in the form of children.

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