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Seeds Of Doubt: Uzbek Farmers Fret Over Latest 'Improvement' Plan

Farmers working small plots of land are worried about the reforms.
Farmers working small plots of land are worried about the reforms.

Ulugbek Qurbanov has no idea what he will be ordered to grow this year on the small parcel of state-owned land he is allowed to cultivate in southeastern Uzbekistan.

In fact, he doesn't even know whether he will be allowed to farm this year at all.

A new government decree intended to "optimize" the agricultural sector means that Qurbanov could lose his right to use land he has worked for years in the Mirishkor district of the southern Qashqadaryo region.

The authorities have always told Qurbanov to grow cotton and wheat -- crops that Tashkent considers essential to the economy and social stability.

But under the January 9 decree the minimum size for cotton and wheat farms is 100 hectares, and that threatens to take Qurbanov and his allotment of 15 hectares out of the farming business.

Under the new guidelines he doesn't even meet the 20-hectare minimum for vegetable farming, and he worries that he might be told to plant other crops, like melons, that he lacks the technology and know-how to grow.

His greatest fear is that his land rights could be taken from him altogether, and his parcel merged with those of other small farmers.

In that event it would be up to the district governor and local lawmakers to decide who gets to farm the land: under the decree, any land rights that are taken from farmers are to be given to those who already have invested in production, who have good farming equipment, and who are "financially stable."

Working groups have been created in Tashkent to oversee the process. They include officials from the Agriculture Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Prosecutor-General's Office, tax authorities, and representatives of state-owned banks.

But Qurbanov says there are no local officials he can turn to who actually talk to small farmers about their predicament.

"I'm trying to find a solution for the problem," Qurbanov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "First of all, I want to find out which rights and opportunities I have, and how can I preserve the land so that I can be useful for my country."

"Unfortunately, I don't have any options," Qurbanov said.

Battle For Land-Use Rights

After a disastrous year, many small farmers in Uzbekistan now share Qurbanov's plight.

Poor harvests in 2018 meant many did not fulfill the state quota necessary to guarantee their continued right to cultivate state land.

Under the Uzbek Constitution, all agricultural land except for small garden plots is state-owned.

The rationale for that system has been to ensure the country's food security and social stability, and to better operate the state-run irrigation system.

Instead of owning land, farmers in Uzbekistan sign lease contracts with the state that give them the right to cultivate a parcel of state-owned land for up to 50 years.

Harvesting cotton in Uzbekistan's Samarkand region.
Harvesting cotton in Uzbekistan's Samarkand region.

But Uzbek farmers can't decide which crops they grow, and they must deliver their yields to state-owned firms at below-market prices dictated by the government.

In return, state firms provide Uzbek farmers with seed and seedlings, fertilizers, pesticides, farm equipment, and even fuel to run the state-owned tractors they use.

The farmers are allowed to sell any surplus on their own at the going market price.

If they fail to meet the state-dictated harvest goal, however, even just for one year, they can lose their right to use the land.

Lea Melnikovovna, deputy head of the Department of International Trade at Metropolitan University Prague, says land-tenure rights for Uzbek farmers lack what is needed to improve the long-term efficiency of agriculture and the economy as a whole.

"Land rights should be of sufficient duration to provide incentives for investment," Melnikovovna concluded in a recent study on Uzbek agriculture.

For so-called private farmers, Melnikovovna says, the right to use state land is not secure.

"The length of their lease contract is sufficient;" she says, but protection against "outside interference" is low.

"The farmer's lease contract can be terminated in case of violations of the lease contracts, low effectivity of production, or noncompliance of the state quotas for crops," she says.

The instability makes many farmers reluctant to make the investments needed to increase productivity in the long run.

Many small farmers lost their land rights from 2008 to 2010 when Uzbekistan's agriculture sector underwent three rounds of so-called "optimization" -- a process under which the state forced some smaller farms to merge with others into clusters in an effort to boost production.

The minimum size for cotton and wheat farms was increased under those consolidations.

Who Decides?

Melnikovovna says the process of selecting the farmers who receive land-tenure rights for the larger "optimized" farms is not always transparent.

Officials claim that the most successful farmers are chosen on the basis of their past work.

But Melnikovovna says those claims are "arguable" in a system like Uzbekistan's, where local officials determine who gets farming rights and "sociopolitical connections have always played an important role in the economy."

Small farmers in other parts of Uzbekistan who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity say their disastrous harvests in 2018 make it difficult to imagine taking care of additional acreage.

In addition to financial difficulties, their problems include water shortages and the state's crumbling irrigation system, declining yields caused by increased salinization of the soil, a shrinking workforce in rural areas, and the lack of proper equipment for large-scale agriculture.

"It's very hard for us to take care of even 15 to 20 hectares," one farmer in the eastern Jizzaq region told RFE/RL. "We had to sell all of our valuable things already just to put our farms back in order" after poor harvests in recent years."

Another farmer in the Yazyavan district of the eastern Ferghana region told RFE/RL that it's common for local officials to "misinterpret" government decrees on agriculture.

"Because of that, there are a lot of angry farmers in the region," he said. "The district governor takes land rights from the farmers without considering the size of their land parcels. Now the farmers are being forced to sign documents to cancel their land-lease agreements."

"In other words, the local authorities want to take away all the land rights from the farmers and redistribute them," he complained.

But a farmer at an enterprise in the Shovot district of the central Khorezm region told RFE/RL he is pleased about the government's new decree because his land-usage rights will double after meeting his quota.

"I'm really glad that I decided to increase the land I cultivated," he said. "Now I will get 100 hectares of land to farm. This is an opportunity, and if we succeed we will get more equipment."

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Mehribon Bekieva.

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