A look back on small-scale agriculture in Uzbekistan at the beginning of the 2000s

An exploration of spaces, people and practices using the example of the region around Samarkand

At the beginning of the 2000s, the agricultural situation in Uzbekistan was still mostly unchanged from the situation during the Soviet Union. Cotton was mainly grown on the established large areas. Besides, farmers spent as much time as possible on private land. A visit to the bazaar of Samarkand showed then, as during the Soviet Union, which type of agriculture was more important for the people. 

The centre of the bazaar of Samarkand dates back to early Soviet times. Impressive is the classicistic architecture of the building.

The centre of the bazaar is the market for vegetables and fruit, which was, visible in the typical architecture, built in the Soviet era. The Soviet system knew so-called private farmland in addition to the collective land. On these areas, the farmers and other employees from other branches of the economy were allowed to provide themselves with self-sufficient agricultural work. Besides, they were allowed to sell surplus produce at the kolkhoz markets which were not tied to prices. The internal structural problems of Soviet agriculture cannot be discussed here (cf. Brooks 1988, Hedlund 1989). In brief, however, it can be stated that the productivity on private farmland exceeded the richness of the collective farms and sovkhozes, especially for labour-intensive agricultural products. Over many phases of the Soviet Union, the supply of food to the population was only possible through private farm farming, which was contrary to socialist logic.

Agriculture is Uzbekistan’s biggest employer, and cotton is king, as it was in Soviet days, when irrigation canals were stitched across the arid landscape and ground-water became polluted with agrochemicals. State farms, also Soviet relics, have not been abolished, and the government still tells farmers what to plant: cotton. The system enriches the state at the expense of the peasants, for the crop must be sold to the state at a fraction of its value.

Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February (2002)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the initially surprising effect in Russia and the post-Soviet states was that people fled not the countryside but the cities because of the threat of poverty. For there they had the opportunity to grow their vegetables and fruit and keep small livestock on old dacha plots or former family estates. In the end, the citizens of the Soviet Union, even if they were academics or industrial workers, could never afford to unlearn gardening. After all, gardening ultimately ensured their primary supply. Even today, in many states of the South Caucasus and in Central Asia many families are dependent on the production of food for self-sufficiency.

Agriculture in Uzbekistan is, outside of cash crop cultivation, a small-scale farming economy characterised by manual labour, for which solidarity within the extended family is of utmost importance.

Accordingly important was and is the own courtyard land. In Uzbekistan, it is surrounded on three sides by walls as a privacy shield and is screened off from the street or the opposite side by the residential building. These areas are used intensively; each square metre is carefully planted and irrigated to achieve the highest possible yield. In the 2000s, when western tourists were still rare in the country, if one was lucky enough to be invited into the family’s private room, one was always amazed at how green the space behind the grey and brown walls was.

Dehqan farms are created on the basis of household plots. The head of a dehqan farm receives a land plot for life inheritable possession. Unlike farms, the maximum sizes of the land area for dehqans are established: 0.35 ha of irrigated land, 0.5 ha of boharic land and not more than 1 ha of non-irrigated land in the steppe zone. These are small farms focused on self-production and sale of surplus agricultural products in food markets.

Yusupov (2019)

Typical for Uzbekistan as well as for other regions in Central Asia are the villages running along the roads, where family properties line up. In front of the houses, one often finds rows of slenderly rising trees, which are usually planted after the birth of a son. The trunks for the roof truss of the future house grow with the child. In general, the whole family is busy cultivating their own land, regardless of whether the children are already studying. Under President Karimov, it was still common practice to order all forces to the fields at the time of the cotton harvest.

Due to the severe winter frost, the trunks of the walnut trees have to be wrapped in white cloths in the mountains in winter – the more beautiful the spring blossom, which indicates that the valuable walnut tree has survived.

In Uzbekistan, as a consequence, the collective structures remained very much alive. Many families remained part of collectives in order to take advantage of the educational opportunities that the collective offered their children. Many independent farmers leased land from the collectives. A large number of farmers continued to cultivate the fields, although their crop yields are low because there is no other way for them to earn a living. To this day many people grow apples, pears, apricots, grapes, almonds, chickpeas and vegetables in their farm gardens.

Rural life in Uzbekistan’s east in the mountains on the border with Tajikistan: Livestock farming such as sheep and goat farming and walnut cultures are important here.

About four years after the change of government, Uzbekistan has intensified cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank to improve its water and land resource management. Recently, efforts have been made to implement standards for organic agricultural production in order to align with international requirements and thus open up new markets.

Agriculture, which has recently experienced an upturn through expansion and diversification, plays an essential role in the Uzbek economy. The sector employs 27% of the labour force and, according to the World Bank (2019), contributes 30% to the gross domestic product (GDP). Gross agricultural production increased by 171.2% between 2016 and 2019, mainly due to fruit and vegetables, livestock, timber and fish. In 2016, fruit and vegetable exports accounted for more than 50% of agricultural export earnings and have now increased 1.5 times compared to 2016.

Le Bail (2020)

Winegrowing in the south of Samarkand: In winter the vines are buried because of the hard winter frost. To do this, the trunks are regularly bent from a young age just above the ground, so that a kind of joint is formed without damaging the veins of the trunk.

Even if the state order continues to exist, in future farmers are to be allowed to use their land freely to optimise the production structure. Thus the prescribed practice of cotton and wheat production is to be relaxed. In general, the future will also be about strengthening land ownership rights, protecting existing leases and increasing the proportion of private ownership of agricultural land. This should make it possible to improve both the total volume of farm production and the export potential of the agrarian sector (cf. Uzbek Agricultural Strategy 2020 – 2030).

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photography: © Stefan Applis & Jürgen Renner (2002-2009)

Brooks, K. M. (1988): Food Problems. Science, vol. 240, no. 4851, 1988, pp. 547–548. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1701198 (Date 15 August 2020)

Le Bail, M. (2020). Usbekistan bemüht sich um die Entwicklung seiner ökologischen Landwirtschaft. Novatsan, 17 August 2020. https://novastan.org/de/usbekistan/usbekistan-bemueht-sich-um-die-entwicklung-seiner-oekologischen-landwirtschaft/ (Date 15 August 2020)

Khan, A. R. (1996). The transition ofUzbekistan’s agricultureto a market policy. International Labour Organization 1996. Geneva. http://ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_123467.pdf (Date 15 August 2020)

Yusupov, Y. (2019): The Agricultural Sector of Uzbekistan: Features, Key Problems, the Need for Reforms. Cabar. https://cabar.asia/en/the-agricultural-sector-of-uzbekistan-features-key-problems-the-need-for-reforms/ (Date 15 August 2020)

World Bank (2018). Farmers and Agribusinesses in Uzbekistan to Benefit from Additional Support to Horticulture Sector. PRESS RELEASE NO: 2018/ECA/63. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/01/30/additional-support-to-horticulture-sector-in-uzbekistan (Date 15 August 2020)

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