Land Reform in Tajikistan

By Obie C. Porteous

Obie Porteous holds a B.A. in International Studies and a B.A. in Biology from the University of Chicago, USA. He has work experience with the World Bank in Washington DC and is currently working as a freelance journalist writing articles on agriculture and development economics in West Africa.

This work in Tajikistan was made possible by a grant from the University of Chicago Human Rights Program.

Issue 14 of Field Exchange carried an article by Frances Mason on Action Against Hunger's assessments of the causes of nutritional vulnerability amongst the population in Tajikistan, following cessation of the civil war and signing of the peace accord in 1997. One of several factors identified in this analysis was failure of the land reform programme. The article below describes a further study by Action Against Hunger on the land reform process which unpicks, in more detail, the array of political, institutional and cultural factors impeding progress. (Ed).

The implementation of effective land reform has been one of the biggest challenges faced by the Republic of Tajikistan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. During the Soviet period, the country's sparse agricultural land was organized into state farms (sovkhozes) and collective farms (kolkhozes). Both types of farm were large (typically more than 1,000 hectares) and were kept under the close supervision of the state, which set production plans and received monthly reports on their operations. Beyond its role as economic entity and place of employment, the kolkhoz/sovkhoz was a principal unit of social organization in rural Tajikistan. Each family in the area was given a house with an adjacent household plot for growing food for household consumption. In return, the family was expected to work on the large farm.

Taking a break from cotton picking.

Starting in 1996, as the country emerged from its prolonged civil war, the government slowly began to try to break up these large state and collective farms into smaller, more efficient private farms. Aseries of laws were passed that aimed to reorganize the kolkhozes/sovkhozes (which by this time had entered a state of profound financial crisis) into "dehkan" (private) farms. To date, kolkhozes/sovkhozes that are designated for seed production, livestock breeding, and research are to be kept under the control of the state, but all others are scheduled to be converted into dehkan farms by 2005.

Action Against Hunger (AAH) has been implementing nutrition, health, water/sanitation, and food security programs in Khatlon oblast since 1999. Khatlon is the largest of the four regions of Tajikistan in terms of population, with approximately 2,280,700 people as of January 2003. During the civil war, the region experienced some of the fiercest fighting, and much of its infrastructure was destroyed. AAH's annual nutrition surveys persistently find high rates of both acute and chronic malnutrition in Khatlon.

An AAH study sought to assess the impact of the land reforms at the local level in Khatlon. Five representative districts in the oblast were selected: Bokhtar, Kabodian, Kolkhozabad, Pyanj, and Shaartuz (see Figure 1). These five districts are home to 616,100 people, approximately 30% of the population of Khatlon and 10% of the population of Tajikistan. The goal was to select districts that were at different stages of the land reform process and that had implemented the land reforms in a variety of ways.

AAH investigation

In the first phase of the study, the researcher met with the district representative of the State Land Committee and the chief of the district hukumat (or the deputy chief responsible for agriculture) to gather information on the progress of the land reforms at the district level.

In the second phase of the study, the researcher visited each of the 31 jamoats1 in these five districts. Meetings were first held with one of the three ranking officials of the jamoat - the chief, the deputy chief, and the administrator. Following this meeting, if time permitted, interviews were conducted with the chairmen, accountants, and economists of the jamoat's farms.

In the third phase of the study, 10 villages were randomly selected in each of the five districts. Ateam of AAH monitors used a household questionnaire to interview 20 households in each village. The questionnaire was designed to assess the access to land of households, in addition to their knowledge of the land reforms, the freedom they have in managing their farms, the costs of taxes and documentation, the levels of credit use, etc. In addition, the monitors were given a list of additional questions, which they asked a few households in each village in longer interviews.

In total, the household questionnaire was used to interview 1000 households in 50 villages.

Land Reform on Paper

According to the Khatlon Oblast Land Committee, 185 kolkhozes /sovkhozes had been reorganized into 686 dehkan farms in Khatlon by January 2003. In addition, there were 4,171 small dehkan farms that had been formed by individual application to the hukumat, for a total of 4,857 dehkan farms in the oblast. On paper, the land reforms appear to be proceeding smoothly and successfully.

Access to Land

During the household interviews, AAH encountered five principal types of land:

Dehkan Farms in Practice

Collective farm in Vakhsh district.

AAH encountered several distinct types of dehkan farm during the fieldwork for this study. Most of the land in Khatlon is now contained in collective dehkan farms. In order to meet its privatisation targets, the government has often converted kolkhozes/sovkhozes directly into dehkan farms. Many collective dehkan farms have over 1,000 hectares of land and several thousand members.

Typically, the chief of the kolkhoz/sovkhoz is 'elected' as the chief of the new dehkan farm, and the administration remains the same. Aland certificate is issued in the chief's name with a map of the farm and a list of all of the members who work on the farm. The members are allocated shares of the farm on paper and are supposed to be given membership certificates. Of the dehkan farm workers that AAH interviewed, only 5.6% had received these certificates, and most of the farms said that they were still being prepared. Most of the workers on the farm remained unaware of the changes and 64.3% of interviewed households thought that they were still working for a kolkhoz/sovkhoz.

More changes have occurred for independent dehkan farms. These farms are typically small (less than 50 hectares) and are run by an individual, a family, or a group of families. They were formed through the initiative of individual farmers, rather than by the reorganisation plan of the state.

Independent dehkan farms are now increasingly being supplanted by a third form - the association of dehkan farms. An association consists of a group of small dehkan farms under a single association management. The association management typically provides its farms with seeds, fertiliser, fuel, and machinery. At the end of the year, it is responsible for selling the harvest and takes a certain percentage (2-10%) of the profits. Associations of dehkan farms vary in the autonomy that they allow their member farms.

Current Situation in the districts

The five selected districts have implemented the land reforms in different ways. They vary significantly in both the progress they have made in reorganising their kolkhozes/sovkhozes, and the relative prevalence of the different kinds of dehkan farms in the areas where restructuring has already taken place.

For example, in Bokhtar district, the land reforms have had the least effect on the situation of the population. The five kolkhozes/sovkhozes in Mehnatobod, Navbahor, Oriyon, Sarvati Istiqlol, and Zargar jamoats have been reorganised into twelve large collective dehkan farms. Rented land is more common in Bokhtar than in other districts.

In contrast, in Pyanj district, there are two kolkhozes/sovkhozes for livestock breeding and seed production and ten associations of dehkan farms in the district. More effort has been made to educate farmers about the land reforms, and the level of knowledge is much higher than in other districts.

The ultimate effect of the land reforms in these districts has been to rearrange a group of large agricultural enterprises (kolkhozes and sovkhozes) into another group of large agricultural enterprises (collective dehkan farms and associations of dehkan farms). The new forms are slightly smaller and have more documentation, but not much else has changed.

Freedom of choice

For each type of land, interviewed households were asked, "Can your household decide which crops to grow on this land?"

For dehkan farms, the results were quite striking, where of the 35 households with dehkan farms, none (0/35) said that they were free to choose what crops to grow. This contrasted with other land types, where 97% of household plots (989/993), 91% of presidential land householders (635/700) and 50% of rented land householders (34/68) felt free to choose. When asked to identify who decides what crops are grown on their land, households with dehkan farms cited the government (54.8%), the association management (25.8%), or both (19.4%). AAH found that freedom of choice was inversely proportional to cotton production. On those types of land where cotton is grown (dehkan farms and about half of rented land), farmers are not free to choose what crops to grow. Interviews with local officials clarified the reason for this relationship. For cotton, a government production plan is still in place throughout Khatlon. At the beginning of the year, each district hukumat is given a cotton production target (in tons) from the oblast hukumat. It then distributes this plan among its dehkan farms and kolkhozes/sovkhozes according to a district-wide rate.

The financial sector

The financial autonomy of new dehkan farms is seriously constrained by the large debts that they have inherited from the former kolkhozes/ sovkhozes. Under the Soviet system, farms might owe debts to the government if they were unable to cover the costs of their water, electricity, etc. Starting in the mid-1990s, however, a new form of debt emerged as both kolkhozes/sovkhozes and dehkan farms began working with private investors, known as futures companies, who offered to prefinance cotton production. A farm would take a certain amount of seeds, fertiliser, fuel, and other inputs on credit from these companies at the beginning of the year, on the understanding that it would pay back the credit with its cotton harvest at the end of the year.

If the value of the cotton harvest fell short of the value of the inputs taken on credit, the farm would have a debt to the investors that would roll over to the following year. For most of the farms in Khatlon, this latter situation prevailed, and the debts accumulated quickly. Most local officials and farm managers attribute the growth of the debts to the political instability of the civil war period, when the cotton harvest was low because workers fled, machinery was stolen, and crops were destroyed. Another contributory factor was the low price of cotton on the international market during these years.
According to estimates of the International Monetary Fund, the debts in the agricultural sector total $125 million dollars for the country as a whole. The government does not have the means to pay off these debts - this sum is approximately half of its entire annual budget. Instead, it has decided to distribute the debts to the new dehkan farms based on their size in hectares. In many cases, these debts exceed $1,000 dollars per hectare.

Individual farms vary greatly in the amount of debt they owe, depending on how heavily they were affected by the war and how well they have been managed in recent years. In general, though, the vast majority of kolkhozes/ sovkhozes and dehkan farms in the selected districts are deeply in debt. Dehkan farms are finding it difficult to pay off these debts not only because of their large size, but also because of the nature of the credit agreements. The debts are not owed to a single investor, but rather to a chain of financial intermediaries that connect the districts of Khatlon to the international cotton market. There are two principal problems that this investment structure causes for new dehkan farms that are trying to pay off their inherited debts and establish financial independence. First, each link in the chain has its own interest rate, so the debt servicing payments are quite high. The total annual interest that farms end up paying on their past debts is typically between 32 and 35 per cent. Second, each link in the chain has an effective monopoly on prefinancing. As long as a farm remains in debt, it has to keep working with these investors.

Because of their monopoly on credit, local investors are able to engage in a number of shady practices to maximise their profits. The biggest complaint of farms is that the local investors usually charge double or triple the market price for inputs. Moreover, because the farms have to accept whatever inputs the investors give them, they are unable to pick out the best quality seeds or best quality fertiliser as they normally would in the market. Another frequent complaint of farms is that salary money is rarely paid on time and is sometimes not paid at all.

Workers

Of those households interviewed, 86.3% can be classified as workers on large farms. Of these workers, 26.3% said that they receive no salary for their work on the farm. When workers do receive salaries, they are usually paid two or three times during the first eight months of the year and then every ten days during the cotton picking season based on how much cotton they have picked2. In total, the average reported salary for working on a large farm was 29.7 somoni /year (less than $10 dollars/year). Why do people continue to work for such low salaries? A worker in Pyanj district summed the situation up by saying, "If you do not work," he said, "the police will come and take you to the fields." In total, 21.1% of worker households said that they were not free to stop working for the farm if they wanted to.

Despite the fact that the prospect of forced labour does exist, its actual use is relatively rare because in most cases, the large farm provides just enough additional benefits to keep the workers interested. In particular, 94.7% of workers said that they are given the dried cotton sticks after the harvest, which most rural households depend on for fuel for cooking and heating their homes in winter. This dependence is by far the most important factor keeping people in the fields.

Aside from the cotton sticks, 47.9% of worker households receive a small piece of land from the large farm (usually just 0.02 Ha per worker) to augment their household plots and presidential land. An additional 24.3% receive some food instead of salary. This benefit usually consists of one sack of wheat each year, which is given out in spring, when food stores are smallest. Labor migration is the most common coping mechanism to compensate for the low or non-existent salaries on the farm. In some villages, the researcher was told that an average of one person from every household had migrated to Russia. Migration from Khatlon is typically seasonal, with migrants leaving in the spring, working abroad in the summer, and returning home in the autumn.

The land reform laws have given every citizen of Tajikistan the legal right to apply for and receive their own independent dehkan farm. Yet despite these provisions, most households in Khatlon have not taken land, continue to work on large farms for little or no salary, and actively pursue income-generating opportunities outside of the agricultural sector (e.g. labour migration) to supplement their income.

Why have more people not taken land?

Women walking back from cotton fields in Khatlon region.

As shown in Figure 1, the 965 interviewed households that do not have dehkan farms can each be placed into one of three categories - those who do not know how to apply for a dehkan farm, those who do know how to apply but have not applied, and those who have applied but were refused. The first, and largest, group of households are prevented from taking land by a lack of knowledge. The second group of households identified are aware of the laws and their rights but have decided not to apply for land because of the perceived financial inviability of dehkan farms. The average reported cost to apply for land was 147.4 somoni, or almost $50 dollars - more than five times the average annual salary of a farm worker (29.7 somoni/year).

Once farmers receive a dehkan farm, they know that they will have to pay back the debts on the land and grow cotton for the government and the local investors. Farmers also see that small dehkan farms are having difficulties in finding the money to buy machinery and maintain irrigation networks. Taxes are another difficulty that new dehkan farms are struggling with. There are currently seventeen different types of tax that farms must pay, which take a good portion of their income.

The third group of households know how to apply for a dehkan farm and have decided that they want to do so, but their applications have been refused. Of the 1,000 interviewed househouseholds, 35 had dehkan farms but an almost equal number (32) had applied for land and been refused. While some hukumat and jamoat officials have tried their best to get land into the hands of the people, others have been less eager to do so. Small, independent dehkan farms are not so easy to control, and many feel that a successful dehkan farm system will gradually erode their power and authority.

Programme and policy recommendations

Based on the findings of this study, AAH has compiled a list of recommendations for the government, donors, international organisations, and other key players. These include the following;

Show footnotes

1The jamoat is the smallest administrative unit of the post -Soviet system. Each district had five to seven jamoats. The 31 jamoats ranged in size from 6,940 people in three villages (Obshoron jamoat, Shaartuz district) to 42,000 people in 27 villages (Zargar jamoat, Bokhtar district).

2The cotton picking season typically runs from September to late November or early December. The typical payment for cotton picking is 6-10 dirham per kilogram.

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Reference this page

Obie C. Porteous (2005). Land Reform in Tajikistan. Field Exchange 24, March 2005. p2. www.ennonline.net/fex/24/landreform