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1207 PD: Back to the Middle East

Mike Gangwer Published on 30 November 2007

Reporting to you from Dushanbe and Khujand, Tajikistan …

I am currently on a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) assignment in Tajikistan. My duty station is actually in the Sughd Oblast. I am living in an apartment located in Khujand, the second largest city in Tajikistan.

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Khujand has a population of one-quarter million people; Tajikistan is home to slightly more than seven million people. It is due north of Afghanistan. In fact, the capitol city of Dushanbe is a mere 230 miles from my previous duty station at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

The two countries are similar in many respects. Both are mountainous and largely agrarian. Both are Muslim cultures, although Tajikistan is much more secular in terms of how entrenched the Muslim religion is in day-to-day affairs. Tajikistan was once part of the Soviet Union. Indeed the influence of Russia dominating this part of the world is extensive, whereas this is not the case in Afghanistan.

Khujand is wholly a Russian city. The entire infrastructure is Russian. What I experience here is nearly identical to my previous assignments in Keiv/Poltova, Ukraine and Moscow/Novogorod in Russia. Tajikistan declared its independence from Russia quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Tajikistan became a nation state with a democratic government in 1991.

Yet, the remnants of the Soviet ways are still evident in day-to-day living here.

I am particularly aware of just how much the infrastructure is or has degraded from 1991. Nearly all concrete is undergoing some degree of failure; no doubt when poured the standards for long-term use were minimal. The roads and bridges are truly deteriorating. Recently, we visited several old collective farms requiring five to six hours per day of traveling. Much of the road pavement and concrete were missing. Nearly all of the metal had been removed from bridges, thus exposing only concrete.

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Several of the large hotels in Khujand are in bad shape. In fact, they are no longer hotels but apartments owned by old czars of the Soviet days; rent goes into their pockets with very little addressing depreciation.

I attended a market bazaar in the center of town. A remarkable place, with thousands of people and hundreds of entrepreneurs. Here is a market-driven economy at its best, and I enjoyed being here for the afternoon. My translator, a young man from France and a director of a European Commission Non Government Organization (ECNGO), took me to a livestock market where thousands of cows, goats and sheep were being sold.

As I have seen in other Soviet Union countries, the once proud collective farms are now shells of their original productive selves. The equipment is truly barely operable. The buildings have been stripped of nearly every metal component unless embedded in concrete. For instance, on the four farms I visited here in Tajikistan, the entire milking system of pipelines, machines, milk pumps and cooling components are gone. The cows are milked by women, twice a day. The milk buckets are poured into an open-topped milk tank (galvanized steel, not stainless) and then every day hauled into the rural villages and sold. After families have purchased a liter or two the milk is made into cheese or yogurt or a couple of other finished products that I cannot explain. I have tasted them all; some are fine and some are, well, left for the locals.

The rations are in poor shape. The cows are not fed grain but instead get whatever fodder is left from some crop harvest. I did watch several decades-old choppers at work in a corn field, except the ears had already been removed and the cutter bars were all missing. As you might expect the feed was not really chopped but simply left as very long fibrous plant residue. The material is usually placed in an in-ground bunker silo and packed with a Caterpillar-type tractor.

The cows are bred artificially on these farms, and I was told the conception rate was just under 50 percent. The cows looked reasonably well. They are smaller than our Holsteins, and the herdsmen like the cows coming out of Germany. On every farm, I found a handful of German cows, recently imported, that were half again as big as the local Russian cows. Unfortunately, they are not fed nearly as good of diet as they were bred for.

Milk production is somewhere between 2 to 3 liters (.5 to .75 gallons) per day on the low end and for just-fresh animals with a reasonably good ration, 12 to 15 liters (3 to 4 gallons).

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Milk production is seasonal. Grazing dairies like to have cows calve in the spring, and milk production volumes closely follow when green feed is available. Winter months are cruel; the typical diet is poorly ensiled crop residue and straw-like fodder that is consumed as hay.

Yet with this model there are lights at the end of the tunnel. More private entrepreneurs are now taking over ownership of these large farms. They are seeking help in moving from the old Soviet model towards better ways of managing cows. My job here is helping them do that in small steps, and in this case it is the European Union through their Agricultural Commission footing the bill.

There is much to do. I am teaching agronomic skills, but I am really trying to make the case to the Tajik government that what is needed is a national soils laboratory. The newest soil fertility data I can find here is dated 1990, and these data simply will not work 17 to 18 years later. For the veterinarians, I am suggesting a mobile insemination business. The current model is based on private farmers leading the cow to the local breeding center for insemination. The entire national veterinarian corps would dearly love to have a mobile unit, thus going directly to the cow on her own farm.

Tajikistan faces some huge basic hurdles. Electricity is rationed during winter. Coal is used in many small makeshift stoves so air pollution is a real health problem. Petrol is short year around, so the black marketing of fuel oil is in full swing.

The anchor of the old Soviet system is still holding back progress. Cotton is the primary agricultural crop grown here. Cotton fields take up the great majority of productive land, of which there is short supply in this mountainous country. The crop enriches a few oligarchs at the very top of the economic chain. Clearly this model is a holdover from the old USSR days.

So an interesting assignment in a part of the world that does not see too many people like me. Next month, I will continue reporting from Central Europe. As I always write in this column while on foreign assignment, be very grateful for what you have and never, ever take it for granted. PD

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