Saturday, October 30, 2010


A rais is a kolkhoz director. The kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm, does not exist anymore, but the rais is still prevalent in the collective imagination. Arguably, it is the most important public figure that has disappeared with the Soviet Union.

A kolkhoz could be home to 500 people, but also 20.000. For all practical purposes, the kolkhoz leadership was local government. Leadership styles could vary, from quite democratic -listening to the farmers- to quite undemocratic -focussing on the Party, on self- interest. With the gradual privatization of land came the dissolution of the kolkhoz, a fragmentation of ownership and decision- making, a scattering of responsibilities over a host of successor- organizations.

The tasks of the collective farm, supervised by the rais, were distributed over water user associations, machine tractor parks, district architects and surveyors, and mahalla chiefs (leading formalized neighborhood associations). Most of the real decision- making power moved to the district hakims, the political/ administrative leaders. At the village level, a role remained for the rural chairman, in name almost a new rais, in practice a low- level legal servant.

In the last few weeks, we were finally able to meet a fair number of ex- rais. Very helpful. Some of them climbed the ladder in one kolkhoz, others moved around a bit, in different positions in the agro- system, others were specifically appointed for having no local connections at all -like the podesta in Italian city- states. Most of them had an agricultural engineering background. Degrees in law, economic or politics were non-existing or irrelevant for these future super- mayors. The official image of the kolkhoz was that of a production machine; its functions as local government were secondary. Not only land-use, also the community itself was considered mono- functional.

Talking about land use and planning, it struck me once more how virtually everything was presented as planned, sanctioned and approved by others, by the State, by a long list of other organizations. At the same time, decisions were presented as purely democratic, emerging from the ranks of the workers, the families taking care of a few hectares each. That many, if not most, ideas relating to planning and development came from the kolkhoz leadership, remains out of sight first, becomes apparent only after long conversations. Farm managers could decide on many things, if the budget was there and the cotton targets were not touched.

(Saturday, my first wedding party in Uzbekistan. In fact, it was a pre- wedding party, organized by the family of the bride, primarily for women, part of a long list of ritualized events spanning about a week. Excellent food and drinks, conducive to traditional Uzbek dance- I got some practice.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cotton research, cotton landscapes

In the last few days, we talked to a number of people at the regional cotton research institute, just outside of town. More interesting than I thought.

A research station, like this one, was basically a kolkhoz + research institute. That meant that budgets were partly coming from the state (for research) and partly generated by the collective (the farm). Decisions on improvement, expansion, and other planning- related things were taken more or less like in a kolkhoz, with the director of the institute in a role similar to that of the rais, the kolkhoz leader. Like a kolkhoz, a research station could be very extensive, and could be seen as de facto local government.

In this case, the station at its peak covered over 600ha (making it smaller than an average kolkhoz) and included a village and a plethora of technical, scientific, and farm buildings. Its location was not perfect, close to a growing city and dotted with marshlands, ponds, lakes, and tugai floodplain forest, but a sustained reclamation campaign, lasting until the late 80's, turned it into a model farm. In the last decade, the cooperation with our research project, with ZEF/ Unesco has been intense. Only recently, outsiders were allowed to settle in the village, hard to avoid with Urgench so close.

When the Soviets came, they were serious about cotton, and already in 1922, right after arrival, they established a cotton research station in Khiva. It was moved to Urgench in 1929. New varieties had to be developed; the known ones preferred warmer and wetter regions, like the American South, the main rival in the eyes of the Soviets. At the Urgench site, different directors brought their own visions of the perfect cotton plant and the perfect cotton landscape to the model farm. Varieties like Khorezm 126, 127 and 150 were developed here, suited to the specificities of the region. Farmers were informed and advised.

We talked to an 88-year old gentleman, still busy with the development of ever more productive cotton varieties. In a slightly delapidated concrete building, housing, among other things, a library devoted to cotton, he showed us various cotton plants, and told a story of continuous pressure to improve, with different requirements taking precedence at different times. For the Soviets, productivity was everything, and nobody paid too much attention to the cost of inputs, of labor, land and water. With independence, the loss of Soviet subsidies, and the seeping in of market principles, accounting practices changed, and everything taken for granted, suddenly had a price tag. Efficiency and sustainability became real concerns.

That implied a reduction of 'agro- technical works', a catch- all for everything involving machinery. New cotton varieties are supposed to require less water, less fertilizer, less ditches and seasonal canals. The cotton landscape now is reportedly less messy, less fragmented, and more stable because of that. On the other hand, the countryside is more multifunctional now than in the past, with large cotton or wheat parcels and smaller vegetable plots alternating in many areas; moving rice fields and their levies change the topography almost yearly. In other words, the cotton landscape might be more stable, but many places are not cotton landscapes anymore.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Farmers, knowledge and land

Yesterday, I was at a symposium on agricultural extension in Central Asia. Quite interesting.
Farmers need to know things to do their job, and keeping up with the latest innovations requires a lot of knowledge.

In the U.S., this is made easier by a web of agricultural extension services, usually linked to state universities and based at counties. In Europe, some countries have specialized agricultural universities and their institutes for applied research and extension, or farmers unions active in this field, or both. In the USSR, there was a host of applied agricultural research institutes, at universities, at the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of land reclamation and water resources, under the umbrella of the academy of sciences, and later more and more under a separate academy for agricultural sciences. They went from centralization to decentralization and back, and the late Soviet centralization under the agricultural academy created problems, even according to the Soviets themselves. Knowledge was produced too far from the farmers and their practical problems and limited resources; much of it was never applied, and the collective farms had problems responding to changing circumstances. Yields did not rise for decades in some areas, and even fell in others.

After the breakdown of the Union, the system of institutes fell apart. Connections with the main research centres in Moscow were lost, resources dwindled, and many surviving state- level institutions became empty shells. If one connects this with the break- up of the collective farms and their managing corps of specialists, and with a chronic scarcity of resources in higher education, it is easy to see the clouds gathering. N.g.o.'s cannot take up the challenge by themselves, and neither do the farmers.

For land use and planning, this has too many consequences to describe here, but we can point out that it makes economically and environmentally rational land use very hard to achieve. It also makes it harder for farming communities to formulate shared visions, even on basic issues, yet another reason to assume that bottom- up land use planning is a remote prospect. It makes it harder for farmers to see the advantages of self- organization, and it makes it harder for state organizations to function properly. In an area where it is already difficult to develop long- term visions, to think of investment and investment in knowledge, such amounts to a formidable obstacle for planning, for land reform, and in the end for economic development.

Time might bring solace, and e.g. here in Khorezm the new generation of farmers, often people with different professional backgrounds, is learning the trade. The government invests in experimental farms, in greenhouses and new irrigation techniques. Young Uzbek ngo's combine local knowledge with foreign expertise. And there is production and marketing potential. Attention to land use planning might help to tap that potential.

(Highly recommended: ping- pong for three, where one takes turns to jump out, drink beer, to come back reinvigorated and take the game to a higher level. It might help to change the rules during the game, at unexpected times)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Urgench it is

Back in town, back in Urgench. Three days of travel this time, starting in Holland; one night in Frankfurt, one in Tashkent. Problems with trains and rails brought this delight, enhanced by an old and shaky Soviet plane for the last leg of the trip. Shashlik in Tashkent to acclimatize.

After talking to some colleagues and to the project coordinator, it looks like I'd better shorten the stay in Tashkent in November, since help might be hard to find there, and because the same might be true for the people we want to interview. I have a new assistant, my health is fine, the heat is gone, and I have some Uzbek routines to settle in now -this is the positive side. Now, trying to remember who I talked to about what, who is missing, why, and why that's a pity.

Cotton harvest is almost over, much winter wheat has been sown, the rice is off the fields, but most trees are still green, and some apples, grapes and quince are still there. Life is going back to normal, the universities reconvene, and people take up their real professions again.

[Not much harvest in France, Belgium or Holland. Plenty of rain though, and plenty of excellent seafood. One night in Brittany, we stayed in a 13th century manor turned into a b&b, but some found the wall paper atrocious enough to run away nevertheless]