Empty fields, overgrown bushes mar Abkhazia’s once bountiful farms
Walking through cornfields surrounded by the ruins of war, Davit carelessly looks after his cows and mutters. Today, this land on the outskirts of the town of Gali, Abkhazia, is a pasture for cows. For years, however, it was the center of the annual harvest for Davit’s family and their neighbors.
Abkhazia, a subtropical land that was once famous for its fertile land and bountiful crops, used to be the main source of tea and citrus fruits for the entire Soviet Union. It was a prosperous, beautiful, wealthy region where most people worked the land.
Until August 1992, when conflict erupted in Abkhazia between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians after Abkhazians declared independence from Georgia. The war lasted until the end of September 1993. The impact on the land and the people who once farmed it continues until today.
More than 200,000 ethnic Georgians were forced to flee their homes during the conflict—and just 47,000-60,000 returned to Gali, a district adjacent to Georgian-controlled territory.
Rural communities in Gali that once depended on agriculture stopped farming or significantly reduced their output in the years following the war, due to fighting, high costs and destroyed infrastructure. For instance, not one of the 22 tea factories that once operated in Gali remains. After the end of the war, the tea fields and plantations were covered in overgrown bushes, home to jackals, wolves and snakes.
Instead, families have opted to plant corn and hazelnuts, crops that are easier to sell and require less sophisticated equipment to harvest. To earn a living in the fields, farmers have turned to harsher chemicals and more invasive practices over the years as the yields have dropped.
Davit, 56, has spent his whole life farming fields in Gali, and remembers what life was like, before the war.
“Gali and its whole district had the necessary equipment for farming, qualified personnel and healthy fertilizers, and we never feared a failed harvest," he recalls. Before the war, he managed storage in a cannery company and going to the fields and fruit and vegetable gardens was one of his primary responsibilities before the war.
Even in the years immediately after the war, he remembers tractors full of crops and yards full of people helping his family clean corn. “We had so much white corn that we fed six family members and relatives, cows, pigs and chicken. In addition grapes, pears, apples, watermelon, kiwi, hazelnut and many other fruits were also abundant, and sharing harvest among our neighbors was an old tradition we revived after we all returned to our houses after the war." But Davit notes that over the years, people’s motivation to coax crops out of the land has dropped and harvests are no longer a time for celebration and sharing.
His wife Tamar, 53, a music teacher and gardener, agrees: "When we met after the war, he used to bring fresh, juicy peaches and hang them on the fence outside my house. There are no such peaches anymore. There are not even worms in the soil,” she says. “Can you imagine how the soil and nature have changed? We see it vividly year by year, resulting in less and worse quality fruits and vegetables."
Last summer was the worst for farmers in Gali. Forty-five days of non-stop rain followed another forty-five days of a burning sun. Ale, a young farmer actively working to develop agriculture in Gali, could only harvest 12 baskets of corn on ten hectares of land.
He notes that some plants that were plentiful when he was a child have disappeared—a sign he says that the soil has lost important nutrients, due to climate change as well as the lack of technical and technological resources, proper equipment, quality fertilizer and modern know-how. “Post-war, the local markets offered only low-quality fertilizers, and people, in an attempt to improve soil, gave plants too many chemicals and pesticides. As a result, chemical interference damages the general well-being of the ground,” he says.
Tamazi Khasaia, the leading specialist of the Rural Development Agency of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti regional service, believes people have been misinformed about the role of pesticides and chemicals in farming, which has harmed the soil.
“Weeds and pests are friends to our plants to some extent, creating a favorable microclimate for them. The more chemicals we use, the more we impede the earth's fertility. Treating soil in such a way for decades, of course would bring damage at some point,” he notes, adding that locals are the Rural Development Agency’s main source of information as the Abkhaz authorities do not cooperate with it.
The Rural Development Association, is one of those rare organizations in Abkhazia that work in the direction of agriculture and supports farmers involved in all farming activities, from home gardening to mid-sized agriculture. Alongside UNHCR, the Rural Development Association conducts different projects that help people living in rural communities in Gali and the conflict area rent equipment, improve their farming skills and learn how to deal with new challenges.
Tamar said the Rural Development Association helped her and other socially vulnerable families combat the stink bug, which destroyed hazelnut plantations across the region for years until people learned how to fight it.
In order to help the soil to regenerate, Tamazi advised firstly to detect the problem - what is wrong with soil: lack of calcium, potassium, magnesium or extensive acidity, etc., and then, to treat accordingly. If people simply spray poisonous chemicals without detecting the problem, and cultivate soil every year, healthy plants and those microbes, insects, and weeds that are helpful to each other will be destroyed. “To regenerate damaged soil, it is crucial to give it time to rest with the mulch and use only bio products. Most importantly, people should be informed and educated about this, otherwise, a challenging issue will turn into an agricultural catastrophe.”
The Rural Development Association publishes all its guides and information online, but not all farmers have access to computers and the internet, especially the elderly.
“For me, as for an old lady, neither Georgian nor Abkhazian authorities are helpful. My agricultural work entirely depends on my travel abilities and where I can sell the nuts,” says pensioner Dali Khazalia, 78, from the so-called border village of Otobaia, whose backyard and the hazelnut plantations are just on the borderline, and surrounded by the iron wires.
Dali said that before the stink bug, she was harvesting six tons of hazelnut. The yield dropped to two tons due to the parasites and she had to give the money she earned from her crops to pay the people who helped her harvest the nuts. Last year, the lack of rain and high temperatures affected her crops again. "I hope the weather will be merciful to us this year, and the harvest will be more abundant,” she says.
This Feature Article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2023
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.
*Chai Khana is not publishing respondents’ real names for their protection.