Tajikistan: Freedom to Farm

Diversification of the Tajik economy and eliminating the system of debts owed by families working cotton fields is considered crucial to reducing poverty. Reforms have been slow, but a recent presidential decree giving individual families farming rights and encouraging the transition from cotton to food crops was evident across farming areas in Sughd province early this spring. This family is planting fruit trees and digging irrigation ditches on a field that previously grew cotton. Image by Carolyn Drake. Tajikistan, 2009.

A worker shovels cotton into a truck at a cotton factory. Image by Carolyn Drake. Tajikistan, 2009.

Bread, but few other fresh foods, is in abundant supply at the central market in Isfara, a city near Tajikistan's border with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Image by Carolyn Drake. Tajikistan, 2009.

Cotton share-croppers in Southern Tajikistan. Image by Carolyn Drake. Tajikistan, 2009.

This morning I met with Tajiks involved in agricultural development. A big government reform is in place that could have a huge impact on Tajikistan's agriculture. Farmers now have the right, in theory, to choose what to grow. The reform is called "Freedom to Farm."

Cotton has been the major Tajik crop, mandated by the government, and it's a disaster. Cotton prices have tanked. It's a water-intensive plant that requires export to market, and obviously does nothing to meet Tajikstan's food security needs. Allowing farmers to pick what they plant has the potential to make Tajik's small farms much more efficient and profitable while lowering the country's food prices, which have skyrocketed.

But transitioning out of cotton is not so easy. Having spent years or decades growing cotton, switching to a new plant can be daunting. Also, a decree from the central government is not automatically implemented. Tajikistan is a country of many semi-autonomous enclaves—the Tajik president often has to reach negotiated settlements with local strongmen and power-brokers.