In a domino effect, the collapse of the Soviet Union took down the economies of nearly all former republics in the great empire. Across Armenia the impact was most noticeable in shuttered factories; however, just as surely though less dramatically, it manifested itself through the severe damage wrought on agriculture, which, in Armenia, had accounted for nearly half of state revenues.
In Armenia, which was the pioneer of land reform and property privatization in the region (1991), agriculture gradually turned from a source of revenue into a liability and, in some ways, a burden for the state, constantly needing to be subsidized.
Over the years, concerns have been raised that more than 40 percent of Armenia’s agricultural capacity has withered or is simply unused, and the result is that the once-powerful farm industry now generates only about 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of the population is in some way engaged in agriculture and depend on it for their income. At the same time, official statistics show that at least 35 percent of the rural population is poor. It is easy, then, to see a connection between strengthening agriculture and reducing poverty.
Efforts are being made and have been at the forefront of the current government administration, most often in partnership with international agencies. Rehabilitation programs for this most vulnerable sector of the economy have been carried out by organizations such as the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the British charity Oxfam, the Millennium Challenge Account, the All-Armenian Hayastan Fund and many other large and small projects, due to which problems have been solved, but more still await solutions.
The government had declared 2011 a year of agriculture and, with the aid of different programs, managed to bring about a nearly 14-percent growth during the year. The 14-percent “growth,” however, fell short of the 15-percent decline that had been seen the previous year. Beginning at the close of the disastrous 2010 harvest, Armenia’s agriculture began to get much-needed attention, but as with the republic’s industry, there would be no quick solution to restoring this potentially rich resource.
While the government is trying to regain the trust of farmers who, for years, were left without due care and had to deal with huge problems independently, the many international organizations that continue to reach out to Armenia’s post-Soviet needs are offering a foundation of support.
On December 6, 2011, on the initiative of Oxfam, the United Nations Development Programme Office, and more than a dozen organizations with long experience of working in the agricultural sector, announced the establishment of an alliance to promote local agricultural production, create favorable conditions for the functioning of cooperatives, ensuring affordable loans, and so on.
This consolidation of effort also pursues the major long-term goal of promoting proportionate development of the country—its urban and rural communities.
“For many years, different organizations have been carrying out projects in the agricultural sector, but now it is time we all consolidated our efforts,” says Oxfam’s Armenia country director Margarita Hakobian.
The importance of the alliance will be more significant if relevant legislative acts are initiated and adopted. For improving legislation, Oxfam often carries out lobbying activities in the Armenian National Assembly, representing the interests of rural households and small farmers.
“Through this alliance our voice will become more audible. There are lots of problems connected with legislation. By addressing them we can improve the farming sector,” says Hakobian.
However, villagers are not yet so concerned about laws, as they are about more practical issues such as the lack of irrigation.
Reduce the challenges
The largest agricultural-support program—both financially and by its extent—that has been carried out in Armenia since independence is the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $117-million aid program, which, as specialists often emphasize, “raised the collapsed agriculture to its knees.”
“But several such large programs are needed to raise the sector back to its feet,” says Ara Hovsepian, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Account-Armenia Fund.
The largest component of the program, whose results can already be felt in almost all regions, was the restoration of irrigation infrastructure, due to which 9,000 hectares (22,200 acres) of previously untilled land can now be irrigated and can subsequently be used for agricultural purposes. (A total of about 47,000 hectares—about 116,000 acres—were irrigated, including new and repaired pipes.)
Six main water canals in five provinces that provide irrigation water to 192 rural communities have been restored as part of the five-year program.
A total of 100 community water systems ensuring the flow of water from central canals to farmland have been restored in 10 provinces.
When surveying for the irrigation system was launched in the Vayots Dzor area three years ago, Sergey Mkhitaryan, 70, from Yeghegnadzor still did not believe in the promises.
“Before that, we used to hear so many promises that we no longer believed that it would actually be restored some day. But now the eight-kilometer (about five-mile) section of irrigation water supply for the village has been restored,” says Mkhitarian.
The result is that this spring Mkhitarian had about 8,000 square meters he could cultivate, compared to only 2,000 in previous years, as the rest was not irrigated.
“We had grown sick and tired of waiting for water, had left most of our lands uncultivated, because the result was not worth the effort,” says Mkhitarian as he looks forward to a bigger harvest and additional revenue from it.
Due to the rehabilitation of irrigation systems, new agricultural prospects opened up for the Dalarik community in the Armavir province. In Soviet times Dalarik was set up as an industrial town and there was almost no agricultural infrastructure there.
“Because of the absence of water, people in Dalarik hardly engaged in farming. They could hardly even irrigate their backyard gardens once a year. Now the availability of irrigation water will become a means for the local farmers to make money,” says Dalarik mayor Pargev Saghatelian.
Millennium Challenge’s project in Dalarik rehabilitated canals, gravity-flow and drainage water systems and pumping stations, providing about 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) of land with a permanent irrigation system.
Project specialists estimate that the new systems will result in 30 -60-percent water savings, higher labor-to-yield ratio, and, after all, a 20- 50-percent increase in production.
On May 5, 2011, Armenian President Serge Sargsyan said that through this project “work was done that the state could not do alone.” He added that the Millennium Challenge Account-Armenia Fund’s program in Armenia was “one of the most successful programs ever carried out in Armenia.”
Besides the irrigation projects, the program had another major component—the Water-to-Market Activity, as part of which more than 45,000 farmers in 411 villages were provided with new opportunities of selling their products, as refrigerating facilities were built along roads leading to potential markets.
“It was also very important as part of the program to educate farmers, to introduce new crops to them,” says MCA-Armenia Water-to-Market Project Officer Sergey Meloyan.
Many farmers, out of habit and lack of understanding, had been planting “low-capacity” crops. “Today due to the application of new methods, they sow higher-value crops, doubling their income,” says Meloyan.
Former teacher Margarita Grigorian says participating in the training “On-Farm Water Management and High-Value Agriculture” organized by MCA-Armenia broadened the opportunities for her to maintain her family.
The resident of the Armavir province’s village of Khoronk decided to try to more productively use her 1.4-hectare land parcel (about three acres), on which for years she had grown grain and made an annual income of about $1,200.
“It seemed to be a bit of a risk, to make a change, but you always have to take risks to achieve something,” says Grigorian, whose risk proved worthwhile.
For the past three years she has made more than $7,500 annually from the same small acreage, by growing green peppers instead of grain.
“Selling the produce is often a problem. Sometimes we have to take it to the market by ourselves or sell it in yards in the city, but it is surely more profitable than growing grain that provided only bread to us and could not take care of any other concerns,” Grigorian says.
“The result (of the MCA program) will be there still for a long time, since fairly comprehensive and long-term projects were implemented,” says Hrachya Berberian, the head of the Agrarian-Peasant Union. “It remains for the farmers to continue struggling.”
The MCA-Armenia program was completed in 2011, but Hovsepian says the need remains great for such work.
Back to collective farms
After a hasty process of land privatization in 1991, about 330,000 farms were registered in Armenia. Each of those farms—which before had benefited from the system of “collective farms”—now was left to cultivate its lands alone, buy farm machinery, and find markets for their product.
“Farmers were left alone to face their problems and because of that today, according to different expert data, a third of all agricultural lands in Armenia remain uncultivated,” says Berberian.
A few years ago international experts began to advance a new method of solving these problems, suggesting that small farms in Armenia create co-operatives to solve their problems through combined efforts.
“Almost all experts invited by the World Bank presented this model of co-operatives that will, indeed, solve a lot of problems,” says Agricultural Reform Support Program Office Manager Gagik Khachatrian.
He explains why: “If one household alone has to rent a truck to ship just 100 kilograms of fertilizer for their farmland and then take their 100 kilograms of produce to the market, then several farms can together rent this truck to use the capacity more efficiently, thus considerably reducing their costs.”
During his visit to the village of Avan in the autumn of 2011, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian called on farmers to unite, since “it is the best way to meet challenges.”
“If you speak to your purchaser together, in one voice and quote a single price, he cannot refuse. But if you are separate and some of you disagree and others agree with the purchase price quoted by the processing company, you will not achieve any results. Staying together is right,” said the prime minister.
The government is implementing the World Bank-funded “Community Agricultural Resource Management and Competitiveness” five-year project, which costs a total of $21.33 million, of which $3.53 million is provided by the Armenian government.
The project is being implemented in six regions of Armenia (Aragatsotn, Lori, Shirak, Tavush, Syunik and Gegharkunik) and covers 55 communities.
“This project is an important component for the creation and support of cooperatives, for improving cattle-breeding and pastureland. In other words, we should provide irrigation for the vast pastures that simply remain unused because of the lack of water,” says Khachatrian.
According to data of the Ministry of Agriculture, half of the pastures in the country—an area of more than 550,000 hectares (1.3 million acres)—are not used mainly due to the absence of roads and lack of water.
“That is, we lose half of our resources, that’s why herds of livestock keep decreasing,” says Berberian.
The alpine Avan community in the Aragatsotn province, which was included in the World Bank program, was among the first where work began to rebuild the road leading towards pastures and install a 1,500-meter water pipe for cattle.
“If the program is normally implemented, the expected results must be good,” says Avan village mayor Gevorg Galstian.
The local leader thinks that the program was developed in the right direction. “Because often there are no effective programs,” he says.
“For example, they bring in experts to teach us how to increase milk yield through artificial insemination. But if this poor cow has to walk 10 kilometers to reach the pasture and then goes some five kilometers to drink water, what milk will there be? For a good milk yield, cattle should graze and drink water frequently and not walk several kilometers to drink water,” says Galstian.
Avan, a village of 326 households, has set up a cooperative that has 156 members. As was promised by the prime minister, the villagers will even be able to purchase agricultural machinery with their cooperative. In other provinces, about 60 such cooperatives have been created since the launching of the program.
“This program also envisages the purchase of agricultural machinery, for which 50 percent will be paid by the government and the remaining 50 percent will be paid by the community or cooperative members. They can even find sponsors, but at least 20 percent shall be paid by farmers so that they feel greater responsibility for the purchased equipment,” says Khachatrian.
Khachatrian, however, thinks the projects will not give real benefits until the psychology of the villager changes.
“Villagers have a destructive Soviet-era psychology. They always think that the state owes them and must do things for them. Yes, the state must restore irrigation systems, but it doesn’t have to find markets for farmers, etc.; they should work themselves, make an effort. Training is also important; today farmers are ignorant about new agricultural technologies. The educational component in all programs is important,” says Khachatrian.
Learning new ways to earn
Among the vocal advocates of cooperatives are specialists of a sustainable livelihood program being implemented by Oxfam GB Armenia.
The main goal of the program, launched in 2010, is to improve the positions of small farmers in the market by helping them find new opportunities for sales and establish ties with exporters. The project also tries to reach the goal by offering training to farmers in marketing principles as well as through providing them with technical assistance.
“We have selected the remotest and poorest communities of the Vayots Dzor and Tavush provinces that have resources that are not used for various reasons,” says Vadim Uzunian, Livelihood Program Officer at Oxfam. “Studies show that they cannot sell 70-80 percent of agricultural products in their remote regions. Our main objective is to support them and help them in finding markets for their products.”
In 2010, the program helped farmers create cooperation with the Alishan cannery, which purchased more than 15 tons of fruit and vegetables at prices suitable for farmers.
The program benefits 1,000-1,500 farmers. By 2015, it expects to become available to about 4,000 farmers in 40 communities.
Oxfam experts offer another way to deal with climate-related problems as they started to introduce such non-traditional (for Armenia) but less perishable crops as broccoli, chili peppers, cherry tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.
“In the villages they were slow to embrace the idea of growing new plants. But one or two successful attempts that were undertaken mostly by farming cooperatives set up by women became a good example to arouse the interest of others,” says Uzunian.
With seeds provided under the program in 2011, several communities had good broccoli harvests last year. And growing broccoli not only is less time-consuming, but is also more profitable in terms of its higher market price.
But the greatest achievement for farmers is the establishment of a refrigeration storage center with the support of the program.
In 2010, a storage center for fresh fruits and vegetables opened in the Aknaghbyur village of the Tavush province, which has about 500 residents and is located about 140 kilometers (86 miles) north of Yerevan. The facility provided by Oxfam and MCA-Armenia, working in partnership, has a capacity of storing around 70 tons of agricultural products in refrigerating containers.
The center is managed by the Aknaghbyur and Lusadzor agricultural cooperatives that involve 64 farmers, each of whom has his or her own separate refrigeration department to store produce.
“This was a salvation for our villages, because our region’s magnificent figs, Cornelian cherries, fruits won’t sell in summer, or we have to sell them very cheap,” says Aknaghbyur village mayor Karen Dolmazian. “Due to the refrigeration facility, in winter these fruits sell very quickly, more easily and at a much higher price. Supermarkets, factories, markets take them.”
The storage center also serves farmers in the communities of Lusadzor, Khashtarak and Lusahovit.
Oxfam allocated about $20,000 for the repairs of the storage center’s building and MCA-Armenia purchased about $10,000 worth of refrigeration equipment.
Martik Mkhitarian, a member of the Aknaghbyur agricultural consumer collective, whose figs are stored in the refrigerated facility, says that “this initiative is going to almost double our incomes.”
“The village is slowly rising up to its feet. Already for two years no one has left our village; they’ve gotten attached to their land and work on it, being sure that their produce will not go bad,” says Mkhitarian.
Still waiting for support
Despite the fact that many government and international programs do yield results, half of Armenia’s villages are still awaiting assistance and strategic programs.
The most vulnerable of them are villages near the border with Azerbaijan. In such villages, thousands of hectares of land remain uncultivated because of the dangers of landmines and sniper fire. Investments are not being made for fear of another potential armed conflict and its consequences.
The village of Barekamavan is at a distance of only one kilometer from the three villages of Azerbaijan’s Gazakh district. As many as 500 people still live in the village, thus serving as a major backing for Armenia in the volatile borderland area. But many there feel their backs, meanwhile, are not being protected from the capital.
Because of shootings at the border, a total of about 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of arable land are not being farmed. Villagers are also unable to make use of large stretches of pastureland.
“Villagers are afraid to work on their lands. We did farm it before 2010, but then they [Azeris] shot at the tractors and the tractor drivers fled the field and have never returned there since then,” says the village’s 30-year-old mayor Gagik Abazian.
Abazian says that the state should at least provide support in terms of restoring the irrigation system for homesteads. “Otherwise, there is no other means to live in the village,” he says.
Last year, a gravity flow pipeline was laid down from the Noyemberian Hills with the $2.9-million funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The facility will help irrigate the lands of four border villages. But it leaves out Barekamavan because an additional seven-kilometer (four-mile) pipeline has not been installed.
In 2010, sowing seeds for 60 hectares (148 acres) were given to the villagers by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, but that proved “a temporary solution.”
“It was good, farmers got something, but it wasn’t a long-term strategic plan, a more serious investment is needed here,” says village mayor.
The problems also face another border community, Vazashen. Residents of the 1,000-member village live under constant threat of enemy shooting.
In the village that suffered major destruction during the war in the 1990s and still remains half-ruined, people remember December 29, 1992 when at early dawn Azeris in tanks and other military vehicles invaded, killing 13 civilians. And during the years of ceasefire life there has been far from peaceful.
Some 1,600 hectares (about 3,900 acres) of farmland near the border have not been used because of shootings. Moreover, 60 hectares (148 acres) of that land are mined.
“We’ve lost so many cows and sheep because of those landmines, we’ve stopped counting. Is there anyone who remembers us?” says Vazashen villager Mamikon Ghazarian.
Vazashen villagers see apiculture as the only way for border villages to develop. “Because no one will make an investment, no one will build a factory here, we cannot cultivate our land, and there is no other option,” says Ghazarian. “Landmines and sniper fire do not affect bees.”
Vazashen village mayor Lorik Badirian says that they made such a proposal on behalf of border villages several times during meetings with Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetian. They asked for a small contribution to help farmers buy hives. “Although there is no response yet, we are still waiting for it,” he says.
The greatest assistance that those in border villages expect from the government is exemption from land tax. Although under the Law on Land Tax Privileges, lands “remaining unused because of combat” should be exempted from this kind of tax, the villagers say there are still charged it.
“We are tired of raising this tax issue. Only 20 percent in the village have been released from paying this tax as their lands are on the enemy side, but the ones who have lands on our side where it is still dangerous to work are not exempted from paying this tax, and there is already a $20,000 debt. Who should pay? Why should he pay? We don’t understand that,” says Badirian.
These border villages are not only waging a day-to-day struggle with land, but also live in constant fear of a renewed war. But most of all they feel slighted.
“If at least they [officials] come once, ask how we are, we will feel that there is a state behind us. But we feel forsaken,” says Ghazarian.