Kyrgyzstan plants seeds of co-op farming revival

Kyrgyzstan is planning to create agricultural co-operatives across all of its regions in a bid to support farmers and increase the industry’s share of the national GDP. Deputy...

Kyrgyzstan is planning to create agricultural co-operatives across all of its regions in a bid to support farmers and increase the industry’s share of the national GDP.

Deputy Prime Minister Mukhammetkaly Abugaziev has recently talked about the country’s agricultural potential, and the ministry of agriculture is planning an inter-ministerial working group to set out a programme for the development of co-ops.

The country’s first co-operatives were formed during the Soviet era. However, these were administered by the central government and had to comply with the state’s plans for agriculture, meaning that they lacked democratic accountability.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan became a sovereign state and undertook reforms to privatise collectively owned lands and farms.

Co-ops that were registered and organised on the Soviet model continue to exist but are now member-owned.

“These co-operatives often still have an authority of their leader and continue to function under more or less the same principles as before, exploiting lands and machinery remained from old times,” said Dr Nazik Beishenaly, president of the Co-operative Union of Kyrgyzstan, the largest in the country. “The main issue for these co-operatives is to perpetuate their activities given that their members are getting old and their children are not interested in farming.”

A second wave of co-operatives emerged in the mid 2000s through the work of international organisations such as Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and GIZ, a German provider of international co-operation services for sustainable development.

“These co-operatives had an opportunity to be trained on the principles of Western co-operatives that promoted democratic and participatory management,” said Dr Beishenaly.

“They have a smaller scale of activities and organise mainly as goods and service co-operatives to ensure an access to agricultural machinery and inputs. As part of its support for the co-operative movement in Kyrgyzstan, GIZ supported in 2007 the establishment of the Co-operative Union.”

The Co-operative Union has more than 100 members, 50 of which are active co-operatives, said Dr Beishenaly. Around 90% of the country’s co-ops are involved in agriculture, she added, with co-operation crucial for farmers to access electricity, irrigation and machinery.

But co-ops are also emerging in sectors like finance and housing.

Every year the union acts as a forum for co-operators across the country. This year’s forum, on 26 July, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Centre for the Development of Green and Sustainable Jobs (Switzerland) to work together in the field of agro-tourism.

Products from various co-operatives were showcased at the Forum
Products from various co-operatives were showcased at the forum

“We believe that this partnership will help the Union to raise capacity of our members on diversifying their agricultural products and services,” said Dr Beishenaly.

“Kyrgyzstan is a country with amazing nature – 95% of the territory is mountainous.

“Our agricultural co-operatives, in addition to their main activity, can host international tourists interested in living in beautiful and authentic rural environment, participating at agricultural activities such as making honey, raising medicinal herbs and flowers and making cheese.”

This summer, Dr Beishenaly travelled the country to assess the feasibility of tourism, and found that “every region has a lot to offer”.

This year, the union also played host to representatives from India’s Ministry of Agriculture to discuss partnership opportunities with their co-operative movement.

The forum, backed by the UN World Food Programme, also looked at how Kyrgyzstan’s co-ops could help realise the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and enhance collaboration with the UN.

Other international links include JICA, which every year gives Kyrgyzstan’s co-ops the chance to learn from Japanese co-operatives for a month.

“Training and updating knowledge on agricultural co-operation is very important and therefore our members are eager to learn from international experience,” said Dr Beishenaly.

“We regularly organise in-country trainings on the management of co-operatives, on book-keeping, and other issues for our members, thanks to technical support of the European Union, JICA, GIZ, Korean partners, and others.”

The Co-operative Union continues to work with the government and has initiated amendments to the law on co-operatives and the tax code.

The country adopted new co-operative legislation in 2005, which also refers to service co-operatives. A 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation notes that in Central Asia the term “co-operative” is still automatically understood as a production co-operative, based on a collective farm model. The report highlights the importance of introducing unambiguous definitions within co-operative legislation.

Dr Beishenaly says co-ops are mentioned as strategic partners in the government’s country development programmes, but concrete plans or instruments that would boost their development have yet to be developed.

“The Co-operative Union believes that the objective is not really the creation of the agricultural co-operatives but enabling conditions for sustaining activities of those that are already created and functioning,” she added.

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