By Milena Melnikova*
“I work six days a week, like my wife. I can sometimes take extra hours, and she takes work home. We don’t have time to grow something or raise cattle,” says Andrei Pan, who has been living in Choldala about 580 miles (or 933 km) south of the country’s capital town Nur-Sultan for the past six years. He and his family moved from the nearby city Of Taraz in 2013 after numerous attempts to find affordable housing there.
“In the end, we realized that it would be much easier and more profitable to take a small piece of land and build a house ourselves. The only area with affordable land prices was Choldala.”
Andrei works in a sausage factory, and his wife Elena is a teacher at a city school.
Their story reflects major phenomena in this southern Kazakhstan farming community where increasing unaffordability of land in the city drives people to move here to buy agriculture land to build housing for themselves.
This area consists of fertile land, which was the main reason for the establishment of summer cottages in the area during the Soviet period for city dwellers to enjoy the rural farming atmosphere. According to the 2009 census, 3,167 people lived in the village. All of them were landowners and farmers. For many years, their main source of income was products grown on their own lands.
Choldala was famous for its fruits, berries and an abundance of livestock.
Agriculture accounts for approximately 6 percent of Kazakhstan’s economic production. Approximately 75 percent of the country’s territory is suitable for farming, but only about 30 percent of the land is currently under agricultural production.
In the Choldala area agriculture has ceased to bring income for its people. Residents of Choldala are forced to look for another source of income. There is less of livestock in the area, they say.
Earlier, travelling from Taraz to Choldala it was possible to observe pastures and cattle grazing. Now either dry land or small brick buildings occupy most of the space. Due to the increase in population growth, land that was previously used for pasture is being redeemed for building houses.
The Pan family is not the only example of people who bought the land useful for agriculture but do not use it for farming. There are a lot of families who used to live in the city but decided to move to Choldola. They have permanent jobs and do not see themselves occupied in agriculture.
However, the older generation who used to depend on the products they produce for a livelihood, now face problems.
63-year old Galina Prochanova has been living in Choldala since 1972. Currently, she owns five sectors, which are 3300 square meters. Her farm is one of the largest private farms in the area. Many types of vegetables and fruit trees are grown on their land. Her farm also has chickens, geese, and pigs. Besides, four years ago their family was known for breeding muskrats. Everything that they produced and grew fed them and their children.
However, Galina laments that livestock farming has been declining recently. “If I used to give 30 – 35 tenge (0,078-0,09 US dollars) per kilogram of feed, now the same kilogram but worse quality costs 65 to 70 tenge (0,17-0,18 US dollars)” she says.
She adds: ”in recent years, in corn, you can notice pieces of grass and insects, which was not there before. But we still have to buy it and buy tons of it to feed animals during the winter. And with all this, the price of meat and the products we produce did not rise.”
The cost of gasoline has risen as well, which forces corn suppliers to increase their price. It means that if they spent about 1500 dollars every year for feeding one kind of animals, nowadays they have to spend 3600 dollars. “Agriculture has become unprofitable. We know what to do for the next five or ten years, but we do not see the same future for the next generations”, Galina says.
With 70 percent of the land in the country suitable for agriculture, in May 2018 Agriculture Minister Arman Yevniyev acknowledged the problem country’s small farmers are facing. He said that a 2015 law that gave legal status to agricultural cooperatives would be strengthened to assist small farmers to get access to the market supply chain so that they could compete with big farm companies.
However, Galina worries about the farm sector and feels that younger generations may not be attracted to farming. She thinks that the agricultural decline is also caused by the loss of interest in young people consuming home-grown products.
“People do not protect their health. Although they understand that home-made products are healthier, they prefer to go to the store and buy something ready-made instead of wasting time on production. And even here we cannot compete. It is not easy for the private sector to obtain a license, without which products will not be accepted into the store. State-owned producer almost crushed private.”
With small-scale farmers loosing out to big business, residents of Choldala are searching for new jobs. Even taking into account the fact that in recent years three new schools and a hospital were built in this region, not everyone sees this as progress.
Zhanna Dovlasheva is a resident of Choldala. She moved to the area three years ago. The husband works on a rotational basis, and three children go to school. To provide them with a possible future, she has to work as a cleaner at a local school and at the same time study.
“At the moment, I work part-time as a cleaner at the school where my children study and I study to work as a teacher there. It’s quite difficult, and the children get little attention, but there is no other option.”
In recent years, it has become more difficult for residents of Choldala to make money. On the one hand, the situation seems sad. People lose opportunities and do not know which option to use. But on the other hand, it shows that the world does not stand still. Now people have no choice but to study and find work.
It seems the government is providing all possible assistance to develop Choldala. In addition to the schools and hospitals, reforms and special conditions for landowners are also being developed. With people moving away from their usual lives, some may wonder if this is the development they need.
As Perizat a local store owner in Choldala reflects, even though her shop is one of the biggest, products such as vegetables, meat, and milk are coming from the city because the locals want those. “We tried to sell local products, but no one wants to buy them,” he laments. “People ask for a license and confirmation that the products are clean and not dangerous”.
*The writer is a media studies student from the University of Central Asia, who is doing a summer internship with IDN-INPS as a correspondent in Kaszhakhstan.