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.

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