A story from a field of “white gold”: will cotton save the Azerbaijani economy?
Cotton harvest in Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, oil has long been known as black gold, while cotton has been known as white gold.
Under the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was an active provider of both these vital commodities. During the cotton harvest season, it may have appeared to some that the entire country was involved in the endeavor, including college and school students.
For many years after the fall of the Soviet Union, cotton fell out of the view of the government, unlike oil. The situation changed drastically in 2015 when two negative circumstances coincided: Azerbaijan registered a record-low cotton harvest and oil prices on the world market dropped, which brought about the devaluation of the manat.
In the same year the Azerbaijani government announced the beginning of a campaign to stimulate cotton production. It was announced that by 2022, Azerbaijan would be harvesting up to 500 000 tonnes of cotton a year, in comparison to the 35 000 tonnes that it harvested in 2015, and that new workplaces would be created which would further stimulate and help the growth of different regions of the country.
How does the cotton produce industry fare two years later?
“Thank god the sun’s come out. How nice it is. Maybe I’ll be able to earn 5-10 manat. If it rains I won’t be able to. And even if it stops raining, you need to wait a few days so that the cotton dries out, and only then can you pick it.”
Thanking god for the sun at this time of year, 55-year-old Nazli Mammedova puts on her torn dress and jacket. She wraps a scarf around her face, through which only her eyes peep out. Then she puts on her husband’s gloves and her son’s knee-high rubber boots.
She brings her lunch with her, two boiled eggs, 5-6 pieces of bread, tea in a thermos flask and some candy. She goes out into the courtyard, throws a hoe and a small bag that were lying in the corner over her back, and goes outside.
At 8 o’clock, a yellow old Paz bus will take Nazli and several other of the village women to the cotton fields.
The women nod their heads in agreement: “It’s not long now before it snows,” but the cotton still glows white in the field. Putting on their apron-sacks, they head out into the fields and get to work.
The production of cotton in Azerbaijan has more than doubled from 2015 to 2017.
However, economist Togrul Mashalli says that it will still take a while for the cotton industry to save the economy.
“The roll of cotton production is gradually growing, but the export of cotton is still just 36 percent of the country’s exports. Another problem is that you can’t earn a lot by selling raw cotton; we should have textile and similar factories in the country.
“In Azerbaijan, there are only two large firms that process cotton and sell it abroad – CTS Agro and MKT. This means that a farmer cannot even sell to a third party.”
Nazli and other villagers spend the whole day in the field harvesting cotton which they sell to a farmer for 10 qepiks (about 6 cents) per kilogram. There is not a sound to be heard in this area aside for the rustle of bushes. Sometimes the women ask one another something and then go back to work.
The work is not easy, and by evening they will have gathered no more than 100 kilograms. Over the course of a day, each of them can earn up to 10 manat – the price of a kilogram of beef with bones.
But Nazli and the others are forced to work here because they don’t see any other alternatives; they say there is no other work for women in the region.
Middle-aged housewife Zarifa says that she came to work in the field out of hopelessness: “This is really slave work. You bend your back all day long from sunrise to sunset. Look at my feet – they are all dirty. But what can you do? There is no other way to earn a living around here. So I come to the fields, I harvest cotton in order to be able to buy at least tea and sugar for home.”
Another cotton-picker, Gulyari, says that their biggest hope is that the payment for such work will be increased: “10 qepiks is very little. It would be good if they gave us 20-25 qepiks. We would at least know that we were bringing home something to the family. But 5-10 manat, what is that good for?”
Nazli and her colleagues give the cotton to the farmer for about 10 qepiks, and he sells it for about 50 qepiks (about 30 cents) to one of the two large cotton firms, who then sell the product abroad. The average price for a kilogram of cotton fiber, Togrul Mashali says, is about 1.36 dollars.
As a whole, the entire system of cotton production will continue to fail until it brings a significant amount of income to the economy and the workers involved in the industry in particular.
Economist Natiq Jafarli says that this is an economy problem, not just one industry:
“The problem can be found within the desire of the state to reintroduce collective agriculture. Baku orders that x amount of hectares be sewn with cotton seeds. Such a model doesn’t make any sense from an economic point of view.
The president has, on many occasions, said that the development of cotton production is an important factor in the creation of workplaces. But actually, it shouldn’t be this way. In America, one farmer can manage 12 hectares of land, and in Azerbaijan, 24 people work on 10 hectares. The more hand labour that is employed, the more strongly the profitability of the industry will falter.”
Generally, while reporting articles on life in Azerbaijani villages, women often do not want to be photographed. However, this time things were different. All those involved agreed to be photographed because only their eyes were visible in the pictures.