Tajikistan: Legal Aid Boosts Food Security & Agricultural Investment

Guest commentary by Tiernan Mennen, Director, Land Tenure and Resource Rights Practice, Chemonics International, Inc.

Ms. Adolat Hasanova is a shining example of the success of the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative in Tajikistan. Ms. Hasanova is a single mother who—with seven other women-headed families—runs a small farm that produces cotton for export as well as corn, eggplant, watermelon, and other crops for family sustenance. For years Ms. Hasanova was a worker on a large commercial cotton farm, or dekhan farm – an often poorly run vestige from Tajikistan’s collective farm past. As a worker, she was unable to earn enough to support and adequately feed her family; she saw how poorly managed the farm was and knew she could do better.

In 2008 Ms. Hasanova and her friends applied to take their shares from the dekhan farm and start their own family farm. The process, however, was not so easy. Despite clear legal provisions in the Land Code and Dekhan Farm Law that allow farmers to turn their dekhan shares into privately controlled land, the process to do so is unclear and is regularly blocked by authorities and others with vested interests. Ms. Hasanova’s application to the town council was initially denied; however, with the help of USAID-funded legal assistance centers, she was able to appeal the decision and eventually received her land.

Later, after successfully starting the farm, Ms. Hasanova and her group had their access to public irrigation cut off by a powerful local businessman. Again, with assistance from USAID, a legal challenge was filed and won, providing further legal certainty of the group’s rights to their farm.

Despite these past challenges, the ability of the group to protect their legal rights has given them a feeling of security in their ownership that has allowed them to confidently invest in improvements to the farm that have enhanced their yield, improved their families’ nutrition, and increased their income by over five times what they sporadically earned under the commercial farm.

Ms. Hasanova’s story is repeated throughout rural Tajikistan, but not always with the positive ending. Since 2005, over 80,000 farmers have claimed their land rights to start farms, but thousands of farmers remain on commercial farms. Until recently, there have been few mechanisms of legal support when they apply to take their dekhan farm shares or face challenges to their rights.

When more farmers have secure rights to their farms, they can follow Ms. Hasanova’s lead, which will help address problems of poverty and malnutrition. In Tajikistan, 70% of the population lives in rural areas and rural poverty is as high as 49%. Agriculture accounts for 75% of total employment and women represent 70% of its labor force. Despite the predominance of agriculture, 26% of children under five are stunted (low height-for-age) as a result of chronic nutritional deficiency, and 24% of women of reproductive age suffer from anemia. Tajikistan is a Feed the Future priority country despite its fertile soil, extensive irrigation infrastructure, and long agricultural history as an exporter of cotton, apricots, and other cash crops. As with many countries, low agricultural production and food insecurity in Tajikistan is not caused by a lack of agricultural know-how, but by insecure land tenure and the constant threat of eviction for small family farms.

Through the Tajikistan Land Reform and Farm Restructuring Project, USAID is working with the Tajikistan government to extend support to local farmers to increase their rights and food security. Focusing on the FTF-priority Khatlon region in the South, the project supports legal aid centers run by local NGOs to provide legal assistance to farmers to help them secure rights over their land. Through multiple projects, USAID has supported over 30,000 farmers to learn more about their rights, file applications for use, and challenge evictions or land takings in court. Building on this successful work, the project in Khatlon now ensures the sustainability of this approach through pro bono and market-based business models that will harness local resources to provide legal services to small farmers after USAID’s assistance ends. Toward this end, the project is also supporting national policy and legal aid reform efforts by the Government of Tajikistan.

One of the more successful interventions has been the creation of a network of volunteer community-based paralegals by various legal aid centers. This network has allowed the project to extend awareness and services to villages throughout Tajikistan. Empowered by her own experience, Ms. Hasanova now works as a paralegal in her district to support other farmers encountering the same obstacles she once faced and overcame.

Read more about the project profiled in this commentary.