Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Agriculture has been a mainstay of the Kyrgyz economy and is the chief employer of the country's mainly rural population, but the April revolution left land unsown and crops rotted in the fields during the June violence in the south. As a result, the government has stepped up efforts to ensure food security across the country this winter, according to Agriculture Minister Mamatsharip Turdukulov.
The April revolution coincided unhappily with the height of Kyrgyzstan's spring sowing season. An even bigger problem was the Russian government's decision to stop selling Kyrgyzstan fuel at discounted prices, after discovering the government of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev had been selling the cheap fuel on for a profit. The initial decision by local importers to wait in the hope the discount would be restored meant fuel imports were drastically cut during this critical period. "In the mountainous areas of Naryn, Issyk-Kul and Jalal-Abad oblasts, there is just time to plant crops in April. Therefore, the area under grain crops has decreased by 25,000 hectares compared to last year," Turdukulov tells bne in an interview. "This is also the case for other crops including vegetables, potatoes and tobacco, although the area devoted to sugar beets and cotton is up this year."
A further blow was the closure of borders by Kyrgyzstan's neighbours, stopping seeds, fertilisers and fuel from coming in, and Kyrgyzstan's agricultural products from going out. "When the borders were closed, this seriously affected our agricultural sector," Turdukulov says. "First the potato crop, and later the harvest of cherries and early fruits, had to be sold at low prices on the domestic market since they could not be exported. However, the border with Kazakhstan has now been reopened, and we are able both to export our products and to import the inputs we need for food production."
Kyrgyzstan's mountainous territory means it is not economically feasible to produce grain on a large scale, and it is therefore dependent on Russia and Kazakhstan for grain imports. This year's disastrous harvest in Russia, and Moscow's decision to suspend grain exports, has raised fears of food security in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan has, however, committed to maintaining grain exports to its neighbour.
Turdukulov is confident it will be possible to ensure the population is adequately fed this winter, but says the authorities are constantly tracking food supplies and prices in all regions of the country.
Kyrgyzstan's total grain harvest is expected to be around 1.707m tonnes, including 785,000 tonnes of wheat - the most important crop since bread is the main staple for the population. This is a fall of around 4.6% compared with last year. The vegetable harvest is also down compared to 2009, although Kyrgyzstan has managed to increase production of its main export crop, beans, and production of potatoes and rice remains steady.
While Kyrgyzstan is still waiting for a new government to be formed after the October 10 elections, drawing up long-term policies on agriculture is on hold. However, Turdukulov considers the country has the potential to increase food production in future. At present, Kyrgyzstan has around 122,000 hectares of unused arable land. "If collective drainage networks are restored, this could be returned to production," Turdukulov says. "Recently, farmers have been unable to buy the fertilizers and pesticides they need, which has resulted in smaller harvests. A major update of our tractor fleet and other equipment is also needed, but has not been possible in recent years due to economic problems."
The government already supports rural producers, providing fuel and other inputs at below market prices. International organisations including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are also working to support the sector after this year's events. As the Kyrgyz economy resumes growth, says Turdukulov, it will be possible for the government to increase its support for farmers, thereby raising productivity.
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