Focus on Turkmenistan

by Melissa Alexander
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By Melissa Alexander

The arid land that is now Turkmenistan sits at an ancient crossroads. For the nomadic tribes who lived in the area, horses provided transportation and a means of battle against occasional interlopers, such as the Romans and Ghengis Khan. Additionally, the tribes’ artfully made carpets served as floor coverings and insulation for their portable yurt homes.

This culture and its traditions persisted for thousands of years until the late 1880s, when Russian czars annexed the territory. With the Bolshevik victory over the czarist regime in the early 1900s, Turkmenistan became a part of the Soviet Union.

Under the Soviet regime, Turkmenistan developed its agricultural sector based on cotton and became the second largest producer in the Soviet Union. Today the crop, known in Turkmenistan as "White Gold," remains the premier agricultural product and a major export earner at approximately U.S.$230 million annually.

After achieving independence following the 1991 Soviet collapse, the government began efforts to diversify agricultural production away from the cotton monoculture to become self-sufficient in food. Since then, output of wheat, a food staple, has increased substantially, and the government wants to further expand production of both crops.

Because water shortages pose a major constraint to agridevelopment, the government has come up with an ambitious 10-year plan to solve the problem by building a giant lake. The brainchild of President Niyazov, the project is expected to cost U.S.$6 billion to U.S.$8 billion, cover an area of 3,460 square km and provide farmland capable of producing 300,000 tonnes of grain and almost 500,000 tonnes of cotton a year.

The plan has been criticized as unrealistic and, far from providing extra water resources, is likely to restrict water to existing irrigated fields. Environmentalists claim redirection of water to the lake would poison run-off land with salt, while the amount of lake water lost from evaporation would probably lead to a net loss of the resource.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan will rely on its existing irrigation system that diverts water from the Amu Darya River, one of the two great rivers of Central Asia and the lifeblood of the country. The Amu Darya feeds the 1,100-km Karakum Canal, a Soviet-era project that irrigates cotton and wheat fields in southern Turkmenistan and brings water to the majority of the population.

The irrigation system suffers from poor management and maintenance, featuring water losses of about 50%, rising salinity and poor drainage. Other parts of the country’s agricultural infrastructure also are inadequate. An absence of storage and packaging facilities means that up to 30% of the grain and cotton harvests are lost annually. A shortage of modern harvest equipment also contributes to losses, although the government this year arranged financing through the Central Bank for the purchase of 100 new Case grain combines.

From a policy standpoint, the Soviet collapse brought about changes in land ownership and farming structure. In 1990-92, the government distributed state-held irrigated land to individual plots leased to private farmers. The allocation of other land to independent private farmers occurred in 1993-1996. Finally, in 1996-97, collective and state farms were converted to associations of private leaseholders.

But the government continues to tightly control marketing and processing and uses state contracts for the politically sensitive cotton and wheat crops. Under that system, farmers are assigned quotas of grain and cotton that must be sold to the state. The government enforces the system by controlling irrigation supplies and denying water for unapproved crops.

The government also provides some subsidies to growers under state contracts. These subsidies include payments for half the costs of seed, fertilizers, chemicals and technical services.


In 1989-90, as part of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan produced no wheat and imported all of the approximately 600,000 tonnes of wheat consumed domestically. In 2003-04, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put production at 2.20 million tonnes, with total use at 1.83 million. USDA estimated 2004-05 production at 2.45 million tonnes, with use at 2.3 million.

In reality, the wheat situation is unclear, complicated by the fact that the Turkmen government does not release official data. According to presidential announcements, Turkmenistan’s wheat output is significantly higher than USDA estimates, while news reports from inside Turkmenistan tell a much different story.

Earlier this year, the president announced a 2004 wheat harvest of 2.84 million tonnes, surpassing the announced previous year’s record of 2.53 million. Anonymous government sources and analysts privately derided the 2004 figure, while many Turkmen farmers and consumers were highly suspicious.

Local observers reportedly think the best guess for actual production in 2003 was around 800,000 tonnes. Last winter, police units were said to be scouring the countryside requisitioning any grain they could find from farmers’ own stocks.

This year production was much worse than reported, according to an agricultural ministry official who requested anonymity in one news report. The official also said only 40% to 45% was food grade wheat, contrary to official statements of much higher quality.

A customs officer familiar with Turkmenistan’s import statistics said the level of government purchases from abroad undercut the "official" production figure, as flour was imported from Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Russia. Some of the imported flour is blended with the local product to improve quality, observers said.

For the 2005 harvest, the president set a grain target of 3.1 million tonnes and has indicated that the country should produce 5 million tonnes a year by the end of the decade. But a former agriculture official said such targets were unrealistic, based on existing and potential rates of soil degradation.

Turkmenistan features a centralized system of flour production, dominated by several large state-owned mills, although small private mills also operate to serve local customers.

After independence, the government, in conjunction with its push for food self-sufficiency, built four large vertically integrated milling and baking complexes. Each included wheat handling and processing, with 50,000 tonnes of grain storage.

One site had a milling capacity of 150 tonnes per day, while the other three each had 200-tonne daily capacities. All of the complexes included facilities for receiving wheat from local fields or bulk imports, a cleaning house, a flour mill, a feed mill and a bakery to produce bread for the local population.

Excess flour production is distributed to other area bakeries. The feed mills process and mix the flour byproducts with other ingredients for use as animal feed.

Bread is the primary staple food, and protests in the mid 1990s over the scarcity of bread contributed to the president’s focus on wheat production. The predominant bread is a flat unleavened type, and, together with tea, is often the mainstay of poor people’s diet.


Livestock accounts for around one-quarter of agricultural production, primarily the famous Karakul sheep. Sheep breeding is one of the areas in which Turkmenistan has managed to attain 90% privatization with positive results.

With transfer of sheep into private hands, average flock size is now about 100, down considerably from the Soviet era, when collective farms maintained thousands of sheep in a single enclosure. Dispersal of herds because of privatization has brought some unforeseen benefits, including containment of epidemics and infectious diseases.

Although sheep breeding has been privatized in Turkmenistan, trading in skins and furs is still concentrated in the public sector. Turkmenmallary (Turkmen Livestock) is the umbrella organization authorized to deal in sheepskin and lamb fur.

Pasture feeding is predominant, but productivity varies from region to region, depending on soil and climatic conditions. From 0.12 to 2 head of sheep can be maintained per hectare in most regions without stall-feeding.

Desert pastures occupy 37 million ha of Turkmen territory. The central Karakum, the largest contiguous pastureland in the country, yields 200 kg of dry fodder per hectare. WG

Key Facts

Capital: Ashgabat.

Demography: Population 4.9 million, 1.81% growth rate (2004 estimates); Turkmen (72%), Russian (12%) languages; Muslim religion.

Geography: Central Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea; flat to rolling sandy desert, with mountains along border with Iran; subtropical desert climate.

Government: Republic. Chief of state and head of government is President and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers Saparmurat Niyazov, former Soviet Communist official and sole candidate in 1990 election. Parliament in 1999 appointed him as president for life, although he has said he will step down by 2010. Niyazov, who has adopted the the title "Turkmenbashi" (Father of all Turkmen), exercises tight control over the country’s political, economic and social sectors.

Official agricultural agencies: The Ministry of Agriculture, under Minister Begenc Atamradov.

Economy: Turkmenistan’s economy centers on intensive cotton production in irrigated oases and large natural gas and oil resources. With the former Communist regime in power and a tribally based social structure, Turkmenistan has taken a cautious approach to economic reform, and privatization goals remain limited. Overall near-term prospects are discouraging because of widespread internal poverty, foreign debt burdens and the government’s unwillingness to adopt market-orientated reforms. Turkmenistan’s economic and agricultural statistics are state secrets, and gross domestic product, crop production and other figures are the product of guesswork, subject to wide margins of error. Agriculture is thought to account for about 25% of

G.D.P. and employs 48% of the workforce. G.D.P. per capita: U.S.$5,700 (purchasing power parity); 20% growth rate; 11% inflation; (all 2003 estimates). Currency: Turkmen manat (TMM). Exchange rate: 5,200 TMM = 1 U.S. dollar. Official rate has been unchanged since 1998, unofficial rate fluctates slightly, at around 21,000 to the dollar. Exports: U.S.$3.36 billion f.o.b. (2003 estimate), gas, oil, cotton fiber. Imports: U.S.$2.47 billion (f.o.b., 2003 estimate), machinery and equipment, foodstuffs. Major crops/agricultural products: Cotton is the major crop, although since the late 1990s, annual area planted to wheat has doubled. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, wheat production averages about 2.2 million tonnes a year, typically covering all domestic needs. Food use accounts for more than 80% of domestic consumption. However, some news reports from within Turkmenistan suggest that actual wheat output is far less than official figures. Transportation: Highways, 24,000 km, 19,488 paved; railroads, 2,440 km, all 1.520-m gauge; Turkmenbasy is the major port. Internet: Country code, *.tm; internet hosts, 2,020; users, 8,000 (2002 estimates).