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Yugoslavia: Effort Underway To Revive Kosovo's Agricultural Sector

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Kosovo on efforts to revive the province's agricultural sector. He says the effort faces numerous difficulties, including a missed spring planting season, untended fields, and landmines.

Lipljan, Yugoslavia; 9 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo's farmers face a dismal harvest this autumn. The launch of NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia in late March came at a time when the corn cash crop should have been sown. But the war ensured and there was almost no Spring planting.

All along the Kosovo Valley that runs north and south of Pristina, only a few small garden plots of corn and vegetables can be seen growing. Most of Kosovo's farmland lies fallow. And even the wild grass that has sprouted in the absence of cultivation has become too mature to provide much nutrition for the cattle that have survived.

An even bigger problem for reviving the agricultural sector lies in many fields. Kosovo's returning refugees are being told to stay only on well-used roads and pathways because of landmines. Unexploded NATO cluster bomblets also are scattered across agricultural land, prompting UNICEF warnings about going into any farm field that has not been cleared.

But farmers don't have time to wait for a de-mining operation that is likely to take years to complete. Within days of returning to their villages, ethnic Albanian farm workers were out in the fields cutting hay by hand and loading it onto wagons.

One farmer near the town of Lipljan told RFE/RL that he saw no other choice. The canned reserves that most families keep were used up during the war. Unless fields are cleared, and summer vegetables are planted soon, Kosovo villagers worry that they will have a hard time feeding themselves through next Winter.

Winter wheat, normally planted in October and harvested in July, is another important crop for Kosovo farmers. But Ron Libby, an agricultural specialist in Kosovo with the U.S. Agency For International Development (USAID), estimates that wheat planting reached only twenty percent of its normal level in Western Kosovo last autumn because of fighting in the province. And even in eastern Kosovo, where wheat planting was as high as 60 percent of the normal level, much of the crop has been damaged from neglect. He spoke with our correspondent:

"Even the areas out in the west, or some of these areas in the east [where] wheat [was] planted last year, and where people left -- [Well], they also left cattle and other livestock [behind] and let them roam [freely]. A lot of them roamed out through the wheat fields and did damage. [You can see the damage] when you are flying over it. You [also can] see tank tracks in some of [the fields]. So there are a lot of problems out there."

While travelling in the Kosovo countryside, our correspondent confirmed that a large number of livestock had been killed in recent months. At farming communities west of Lipljan and Pristina, travelers encounter the smell of decomposing animals every few hundred meters. Dead cows lie by the roadsides and in the middle of fields.

Libby says it is too early to estimate how much livestock has been lost. But he said he thinks that smaller animals, like chickens, have been hit harder than larger livestock like goats and cows.

"There are [still] a lot of animals out there. Of course, we're just flying over [in helicopters] now. We need to do a lot of ground checking. But you see a lot of animals [still roaming freely]. As for how many animals there used to be and how many there are now [that is something we are still studying]."

A lot of farming equipment also has been lost. Tractors were an important source of transportation for many ethnic Albanian refugees who fled to neighboring Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. Many of those tractors needed new tires and replacement parts after that difficult journey. International aid workers are looking to countries like Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania as a source of replacement parts for the Yugoslav-built tractors.

Meanwhile, much of the farming equipment that was left behind has been looted or vandalized. There is a dire shortage of harvesters, as well as implements for planting seeds, or for spreading fertilizers and agro-chemicals. So-called downstream agro-infrastructure, such as flour mills and food-processing plants, also were targeted for destruction by Serb forces. Of the scores of flour mills around the northeastern town of Podujevo before the war, only three were n-o-t burned to the ground.

In the village of Sekiraca, near Podujevo, flour mill owner Mustafa Ejupi told RFE/RL he considers himself lucky that his property sustained only about $25,000 of damages. His mill is in better condition than most. But he said Serbs still hauled away the engines that drive his six flour grinders, and sabotaged the electrical system.

Foreign agronomists have determined there are six kinds of vegetables that can be planted now in order to produce a food crop before October -- cabbages, carrots, onions, peppers, spinach, and lettuce.

Libby says USAID is providing enough seeds for these vegetables to allow 100,000 rural families to plant garden plots in the coming weeks. The aim is to grow gardens in order to supplement winter food deliveries by non-governmental aid groups and UN organizations like the World Food Program.

A casual visitor to Pristina's marketplaces would not imagine that there are food shortages in Kosovo. Market stalls are full of vegetables, rice, beans, and spices. But much of this food is being brought into Kosovo from Macedonia, Bulgaria, and even Turkey. With post-war inflation, prices are beyond what many Kosovars can afford for basic foodstuffs.

As apples and pears begin to ripen, it is becoming a common sight to see women and children gathering the fruit from trees in their neighborhoods for subsistence. But it is too late to salvage spring fruits like cherries. Neglect also has left vineyards overgrown with weeds and grass. Expectations are low for the traditional home production of grape brandy this year.

For now, it is too early for international organizations to worry about pushing forward the market reforms needed to make Kosovo's agricultural sector more productive in the long term. Questions about short-term agricultural credit, land ownership rights, and the control of food processing firms are taking a back seat to the immediate task of clearing land mines and planting vegetables in time for Winter. But European Union officials are starting to arrive in Kosovo this week. They say work on long-term projects that boost farm production can start after some kind of harvest is salvaged.