07/26/2010, 00.00
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State hails food self-sufficiency, but many say claim is overblown

Ashgabat celebrates a 1.4 million tonnes grain harvest. Experts say real figure is closer to half. Forced to accept state prices, farmers are barely making ends meeting, despite the country’s rich oil and gas reserves.
Ashgabat (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov gave cabinet at a meeting on 9 July a glowing report card on this year’s grain harvest. With about 1.4 million tonnes in storage, the official harvest figure fell short of the 1.6 million target, but it was still hailed as a success, since it was 200,000 tonnes higher than last year’s announced figure. However, many experts and ordinary Turkmen are not celebrating because the actual figure is probably far less than that and might not avert a food crisis.

State media have hailed agricultural reforms pursued by President Berdymuhammedov since he came to power in 2007. They include paying farmers more for produce sold to the state, offering them better loan facilities and improving the rural infrastructure. However, tax exemptions introduced by his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov have run out and not been renewed.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Turkmenistan found itself largely dependent on grain imports and an agricultural sector given over to cotton production.

Since 1998, the harvest traditionally ends in great fanfare, with the Galla Bairamy, a national holiday that celebrates the wheat harvest. That year, the harvest topped 1 million tonnes for the first time, allowing the Turkmen leadership to announce that the country was now self-sufficient in grain.

Then as now, experts believe the figure to be overblown, and that Turkmen farming is still held back by state control. They point to the fact that government quotas are the same for all regions of Turkmenistan, regardless of differences in climate, soil quality and the availability of irrigation water in this arid country.

Indeed, parts of the country are short of water and in many places government targets are impossible to meet. In fact, a more accurate figure for this year's production would likely be under 800,000 tonnes, or half the amount the government had expected.

What is more, come farmers have complained that the harvest was ended on orders from above, rather than on the time necessary to ensure the crop was ripe. As a result, the crop was often cut before it was ready, and is expected to rot in storage, further depleting grain reserves.

In addition, the authorities have had to crack down on officials and workers exaggerating figures in the grain production and baking industries. Back in January and February, 24 of them, all from Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan, were sentenced to 14 years in prison.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the late President Niyazov dismantled collective farms and replaced them with small and medium size private farm holdings. However, farmers have complained that the old ways persist, that the state continues to decide where grain is to be sown, set production quotas for farmers and buy up crops at prices too low to create any incentive.

"It's just notional that farms are held privately, while in reality we are forced to sell all our harvest to the state for next to nothing, without keeping anything back in reserve for our own needs,” some farmers told AsiaTimes.

“It's impossible for a farmer to earn money for himself because of the contracts imposed by the state," one farmer said.

Agriculture is an important part of Turkmenistan’s economy, accounting for 22 per cent of GDP, this according to the World Bank, but most farmers barely make ends meet because of low prices paid by the state.

The state does provide farmers with seed and fertiliser, which relieves them of some of their cash flow problems in spring. However, some farmers complain that these inputs are often of sub-standard quality. In addition, most of them do not own their machinery and must rent it.

The notion that Turkmenistan is self-sufficient in food is a bold lie, made the more evident by the fact that the government has to import large quantities of grain from neighbouring Kazakhstan. This higher-quality flour is on sale at almost every market in Turkmenistan.

Yet, despite claims of high production, and notwithstanding imports from Kazakhstan, bread shortages are not uncommon outside the capital, Ashgabat.

In the provinces, people often have to queue for hours before the bakeries open. People from villages near Ashgabat or the big cities often have to travel to the bigger centres just to buy bread.

Many impoverished farmers indeed wonder why they do not prosper in oil and gas-rich Turkmenistan.

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