Sunday, August 29, 2010

Russian Olives

There are no olives in Russia. That is, olive trees do not grow there, or anywhere else in the old USSR. Even in Crimea, it gets too cold in the short but biting winter. There are Russian olive trees though (Elaeagnus angustifolia) Native trees of Central Asia, they were cultivated later in Russia, since the 18th century in Europe, and soon after in the US, where they integrated all too well, and are now considered invasive. The picture above is from the southern US. Some people seem to eat the fruit, vaguely similar to olives, rather sweet but dry and chewy.

Here in Khorezm, the Russian olive is an important part of the native tugai forest, originally covering much of the Amu Darya valley, and parts of the delta. Talking to old people in Ashirmat, close to the desert edge, a picture started to form of a fragmented landscape, with patches of tugai forest, spots of desert land, saline and freshwater lakes and wetlands, and small irrigated fields, framed by the natural mosaic.

Russian olive featured in their narratives, as one of the very few species that apparently made up the woodlands. Lakes and wetlands were used for fishing and hunting -wild boar, ducks- but the woods were rather useless, the trees being too small for timber, the wetlands being much richer in animal life. Nobody mentioned the fruits of the Russian olive, the finegrained wood, used elsewhere for fine carving, or the honey from its flowers.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


No, this is not an Uzbek, it is a Roman, an ancient Roman for that matter: Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder (234- 126 BC)

Cato became famous for his persistence. Not a great orator himself, he nevertheless booked an improbable success in the Roman senate, by ending every session with the footnote 'Other than that, I am of the opinion that Carthago should be utterly destroyed'. He did it for years, finally convincing the others to go back to North Africa, after already having conquered the empire of Carthage, just to demolish the modest city that had resurged.

Well, I found the Cato of Khorezm, albeit less belligerent. A retired kolkhoz chief ended every meeting where higher officials were present, with the words ' Other than that, I am of the opinion we should reclaim the land across the collector' - a collector being a lake where saline leftovers of irrigation water end up. 'Across the collector' therefore means 'beyond irrigable land', 'in the desert', 'beyond civilization', or 'beyond reason'. Still, after almost five years of repeating this mantra at district and regional meetings, even in Tashkent, people gave in, a budget was released, and orders from the Tashkent ministries cascaded down to the desert edge of Kushqupyr, where a pipe was built over the collector, to bring usable water to the promising desert.

Rather quickly, the 500 ha reclaimed this way, were abandoned again, but still, a remarkable achievement. Persistence.

[Footnote: Al- Beruni, native Khorezmian, discovered America 5000 years ago. Mode of transportation unknown]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The desert in Karakalpakstan

Yes, I know, it gets boring: I was sick again, could not sleep, and couldn't handle the heat...
But at least some adventures to report. This weekend, we, that is, me and a few colleagues, rented a car, crossed the river and drove a few hours up north, to Karakalpakstan, famous for its deserts, its problematic irrigation agriculture, and its ancient mud fortresses.

We stayed overnight at Ayaz Kala, at a yurt camp (approved by Unesco) next to one of the mud fortresses, and were happy to find at least one ancient camel, and some rusty signs of recent Soviet life, deepening the sense of place. To remind us of globalization, empty Tuborg bottles, Marlboro cigarette butts, and a can of 'Bill Beef' were nonchalantly strewn across the desert and the remainders of the fortress.

The historical site was quite impressive, though hard to interpret. In fact, two forts adorn the site, Ayaz Kala I and II (the second one on the picture). It is clear that the dozens of forts in present- day Karakalpakstan were defending the troublesome northern border of ancient Khorezm. In the north were the nomads, and conquering one tribe just meant opening the door for the next one. The heydays of Ayaz Kala were apparently the 6th and 7th centuries AD, long before the glory period of Khorezm, the 13th century, when a power vacuum in Central Asia enabled the small oasis state to conquer most of it.

The name Karakalpakstan already indicates however, that the nomads could not be kept out forever. After some years under the Golden Horde and the Timurids, the nomadic Karakalpaks more or less quietly took control. After communism, some of them took up their nomadic lifestyle again.

[Friday evening, before this remarkable adventure, we watched Grumpy old men, projected on the garden wall. Ice fishing in Minnesota. The colleagues could not believe people drive on the ice, sit in little shacks, and just wait...]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The edge

This picture is taken in Ashirmat, and so is the picture below. Both are taken at the same spot, looking in two directions. In other words, this is the edge of the irrigated area, the desert boundary, the end of civilized life.

Khorezm is sometimes called an ancient oasis, but it seems more accurate to say that it was part of an unpredictable delta system, with oases, wetlands, saltmarshes and lakes dotting the area. Towards the edge of the delta, the ecology was more unstable, and wetlands could turn into desert in a blink of an eye. Some old residents still talk about 'the land of the 1000 lakes' -an almost eerie resonance with Minnesota. Irrigation goes back far in time, but with the Soviet takeover, the irrigated areas were vastly expanded, and lakes, swamps and desert were turned into cottonfields, later more diversified agriculture.

But, there was always an edge, and a fascination with forcing it into retreat. There were strong incentives to expand. Expansion was progress, technical and economic progress, it was an opportunity for local and regional leaders to boost their popularity, for state organizations to legitimize their existence. For kolkhoz leaders, moving the edge was a means to enlarge their assets, improve their options for diversification, and often also an argument for new subsidies.

Different players took and take credit for the moving edge. In practice, the expansion plans pushed by state organizations competed with initiatives taken at the district level, and, more often, by ambitious kolkhoz leaders. They could use their own machinery, expertise, and financial resources, to annex and irrigate a piece of desert, and become Soviet heroes. Kolkhoz leaders could also lobby for the establishment of a new state farm, Sovkhoz, to push the desert edge, under the assumption that the state farm could be annexed to their collective farm later.

There were limits however, to this local initiative, and the most important one was, predictably, water infrastructure. Larger canals were out of reach, technically, financially and politically. Some of the state organizations could not be circumvented, most of all the project organizations of the Ministry for land reclamation and water management.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Water and the rest

This week, I was able to talk to a colorful collection of people: an old kolkhoz chair, people at the regional planning administration, at regional water management. At the last site, our host was highly animated, at times patiently explaining the details of Soviet and post- Soviet irrigation design, at times yelling because we were not familiar with these details.

Something that interests me is the relation between Soviet planning for water, and planning for all the rest, each falling under a different ministry, each with an intricate web of subsidiary and associated organizations. Much can be boiled down to a simple question: What comes first, the water design or the design of the settlement? The planning system was supposedly highly integrated, taking care of everything, but in practice, other ministries, in this case the water ministry, could take over in whole regions. Still, at the local level, the kolkhoz level, this subversion could be subverted again, and everything could be organized around the settlement, and the desires of its inhabitants. The larger canals would be there, but other than that, almost anything could become flexible. The power of different roles in the kolkhoz could vary, the relations with the district and regional planners, the water organizations.

A practice that was apparently very common in the old days, was retrofitting: something changed, a new road, canal, neighborhood, and it was neatly reinterpreted as part of the original plan. The myth of scientific planning and of central steering power could be maintained like that. We should probably add that many European countries do the same thing, now.

[Thursday, in Ashirmat, an experience: during the meeting, an exchange of vodka and questions developed. For each shot, I could ask a question. Luckily, this happened towards the end of the conversation, so I escaped more or less healthy.]

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Kolkhoz autonomy

This is Ashirmat, the village on the Turkmen border. That is, these are some of the old kolkhoz buildings. Right now, they function as offices and storage space for the water user association, the machine tractor park -two successor organizations- and the fire brigade. Thursday, we had a very interesting conversation there, with a gentlemen who remembered the old collective farm in great detail. He told a story about enormous pressures to develop irrigated agriculture, but also of remarkable local autonomy. Each kolkhoz had a similar hierarchy, with an elected chief, the head agronomist, a local party representative and the shura -a traditional village elder- making up the elite; some people would add the bookkeeper, a hydrotechnician, and the brigadiers, teamleaders responsible for a section of the farm. But, management style and decision- making varied considerably among farms and over time, something enabled by a generally weak district administration.

An interesting figure in this regard is the zemlemer, a combination of cadastre man, land surveyor and planner in one. He kept a registry of the lands, their use, value, and measured everything. Where the kolkhoz chief was not too domineering and the rest of the crowd not too rowdy, he could also decide what goes where, in other words, he also planned settlements, roads, the smaller canals, and everything else. District planners had little say in this. Now, they are in charge. The cadastre established after independence moved to the districts, and became highly politicized because of the intimate connection with farm privatization and assignment of land use rights.

[Yesterday evening, Friday, we finally had a Georgian- style shashlik event, at a local restaurant; when we left, heaps of skewers signaled a successful bacchanal. After which we moved to the local disco, for intelligent conversation and classic techno. The dj's repeated yells 'ZEF UNESCO!' made us feel like celebrities; envious glances filled the room. On the way back, we managed somehow to fit 9 people in a very small car, serving as taxi. This morning, a collective hangover in the guest house, but the productivity is still there, it seems.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The river

Last week, I was sick most of the time. My assistant fell ill. (Today I finally found a new one.) My laptop decided to die on me. But things started to change Saturday night, when we hosted a cocktail party, with most cocktails consisting of vodka and one other, possibly irrelevant, ingredient. This, together with the latino, gypsy and eighties music, must have killed most of the germs, and the next day I was fit enough to explore the wild Amu Darya river, where the catfish roam, the river that made it all happen here.

The river was high, the backwaters overflowed and the backswamps were flooded. A fanatic of swamps, marshes and wetlands I may be, I was still quite impressed with the scale and variety of this area. Heavily used, with fishermen, huts, pipes, pumps, swimmers, gardens and rice paddies crammed in the most impossible corners, the result was nevertheless very impressive. It looked like every square inch that is not used right now, every morsel of unused land lining irrigation ditches, below dykes, along paths, and on the sandy river banks, turns lush in a few seconds. Sedges and reeds grow as high as I ever saw it, while dragonflies fill the air above the rice fields. Trees are strangely familiar: willows, poplars, some ash. A few hours north from here, closer to the Aral Sea, is a Soviet-era nature reserve, where this floodplain forest, the only type of woodland that occurred naturally in the wide region, can be found in a more pristine state.

In the meanwhile, we picked up the research again, and today we talked to a chief engineer at a fascinating organization, under the umbrella of the cadastre, but doing much more than the traditional land registration. The cadastre itself is new, but this particular organization dates from the Soviet era, when it monitored soil quality and advised on crop rotation. Since soil quality during and after socialism was/is the key to all other land use decisions here, they branched out into all areas of planning, and recently became a place that combined monitoring of correct land use with zoning, subdivision and site design, in other words, making it happen. In practice, they still have to deal with other players defending their turf, and they need to be asked.