Research Note: Land Reform in Tajikistan

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by Nathan Hamm on 11/1/2012

The following is a guest post by Brent Hierman, Assistant Professor of Political Science at VMI. Brent discussed this research and land reform in Tajikistan last month at our conference in Arlington, Virginia

Research Note: What does “successful” land reform in Tajikistan look like?

On the seasonably hot evening of May 28th 2012, while Navruz Nekbakhtshoev and I were investigating the politics of farm reorganization in Tajikistan’s cotton growing districts, we visited a village in the district of Zafarobod. There we met a middle-aged man named Khursandmurod (a pseudonym), a carpenter-turned farmer who, until taking time to speak with us, was busy tending a field that he rented from a local elite through an informal barter agreement.

In the course of the interview, Khursandmurod spoke about the uncertainty surrounding his current rental agreement and generally expressed confusion over what steps he could take in order to secure a more stable land-tenure arrangement. Although his particular circumstances are somewhat unique, Khursandmurod’s story sheds light on some of general difficulties many Tajikistani farmers face in navigating the process of farm reorganization. Thus, it is worthwhile to excerpt a bit of the interview in order to enable him to speak in his own words:

Khursandmurod: I am just a worker. Last year they came from Zafarobod [the district center] and told me that I was entitled to at least 2 hectares of land because I have 9 people in my family. But then I haven’t heard anything from them. I think it’s better to have your own land than work at the mercy of other people. The rais [leader of the farm] told me that “Khursandmurod, you’ve done a great job raising the garden” and that I can continue working for him. I irrigate his cotton farm in exchange for 1 hectare of land…

Q: Are there many people who rent land?

Khursandmurod: Yes. You know, we don’t know what we are entitled to. They tell us if you work for me, I’ll give you this much land to grow for your own consumption…

Q: Why don’t you have your own land?

Khursandmurod: I don’t know. There must be a way to get a land, but I don’t know the way…

On the face of it, Khursandmurod’s story is exceptional. The district of Zafarobod is widely considered to have been, one of the most, if not, the most successful cotton-growing districts in reorganizing farms. Unlike the conditions in many poorer performing districts, a relatively high percentage of farmers in Zafarobod are not only aware of their land-use rights, but they have also been able to acquire land-use certificates which have enabled them to establish individual dehqan (peasant) and family dehqan farms. Overall, the residents of Khursandmurod’s village seem to fit the general pattern observed across Zafarobod: a large number have successfully applied to receive their own land share. In fact a mere twenty meters away from where we were conducting this interview with Khursandmurod, two women- each of whom held their own land certificates- were working on an adjacent field.

Of course, awareness does not ensure that an individual farmer will be able to exercise his/her rights; however, given the dense social networks of Tajikistani village life, it is perplexing how little Khursandmurod knew of the rights that he was not actualizing. Indeed, when we later approached the two women working in the neighboring field, they were as surprised at Khursandmurod’s conditions as we were. Yet, for one reason or another there was a large gap between the limited rights he believed he had (shaped by the informal arrangement he had made with his rais) and the more expansive rights that he was formally guaranteed by law.

This latter point suggests an alternative lens- focused on the disjuncture between the formal and informal spheres -with which we can view Khursandmurod’s circumstances. Indeed, when viewed through this lens, aspects of his story seem far less exceptional; observers of Central Asia (and post-Soviet states more broadly) have regularly noted that informal institutions are often as, if not more, important than formal institutions in the region. For instance, recent books by Scott Radnitz 1 and Eric McGlinchey 2 have provided empirically rich accounts of how patronage networks shape political behavior in the states of the region during both quotidian and abnormal periods.

From this perspective, we should not be surprised then to observe that the process of implementing farm reorganization policies has often resulted in a wide gulf between the formal and the informal spheres. For Khursandmurod, this gulf could be observed in his lack of knowledge of his own rights. However, for the two women working in the neighboring field who did know about their land-use rights, a different gulf between the formal and informal could also be observed: despite holding their own land certificates, these women were working for the same rais as Khursandmurod in order to earn extra income.

Thus, their situation would challenge the expectations of those proponents of farm reorganization who maintain that the process of land reform may enable autonomous farmers to flourish. Even after acquiring a land certificate, neither woman was able to extract herself from a dependent relationship with a powerful official; both women continued to work someone else’s land in order to supplement what they could produce on their own. Elsewhere in Zafarobod, we found many other farmers who possessed land certificates yet still relied on remittances from family members working in Russia. For many of these farmers, the obstacles to acquiring land were substituted with even more daunting obstacles (such as accessing credit and getting products to markets) hindering their ability to make a living from that land.

Across Tajikistan the pace of farm reorganization has accelerated over the past few years. While Zafarobod had been a “successful” early reformer, collective farms are now being broken up and converted into individual and family dehqan farms in previously unreformed districts. As we consider what the results of this reform will be, it is important to reflect on the experiences of the rural residents of “successful” districts like Zafarobod. Overall, the experiences sketched out above (and which is backed by additional data we collected this past summer in other districts) strongly suggests that we should be sober when evaluating “successful” reform based on certain objective metrics such as the number of farms converted from one tenure arrangement to another.
In the case of land reform policies –and likely other policy fields in Central Asia as well- it is clear that one must look beyond formal laws and paper records to the actual implementation process. By neglecting the broader economic and political contexts, advocates of reform run the risk undermining reform efforts even while they get the formal institutions “right”.

Brent Hierman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Studies and Political Science at Virginia Military Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana University Bloomington. His research interests within Central Asia revolve around issues related to political economy, inter-ethnic relations, and political contention. Brent has extensive experience living and working in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

  1. Radnitz, Scott. 2010. Weapons of the wealthy: predatory regimes and elite-led protests in Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  2. McGlinchey, Eric. 2011. Chaos, violence, dynasty: politics and Islam in Central Asia. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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