Changing temperatures threaten Azerbaijan’s female farmers

Author: Ilaha Abasli, , Photographer: Chichek Bayramli
Edition: Fear

When Sakina Akbarova, 49, realized warmer winters were destroying her rice plantation, she knew she had to take drastic measures to feed her family.

So last year she decided to diversify her crops, adding potatoes. But heavy rain destroyed those plants before the potatoes could be collected and she lost the entire harvest. Now she has been forced to pick up jobs as a seasonal worker on other farms to earn money for her family.

Unfortunately, Sakina’s story is not unique in farming communities in southern Azerbaijan. Nestled between Iran and the Caspian Sea, the villages in Lankaran district have traditionally been known for their rice, tea and citrus plantations.

That is changing, however, as the weather changes. The data from the National Hydrometeorology Department for 1991–2000 shows an increase in temperature by an average 0.41°C in the southern part of Azerbaijan, which is three times larger than the increase from 1961 to 1990. The change in temperature has already impacted farming and crop cultivation, and more recent studies indicate the situation will get worse. A 2010 UN report suggests that mean temperature will increase by 0.30°C per decade from 2021 to 2050.

“Changes in temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), and intensity of extreme weather could have significant impacts on crop yields,” noted Dr. Fariz Alakbarov, a specialist on green gas emissions and agricultural sciences who works for UNDP as a local climate change mitigation expert.

“Increased CO2 levels can affect crop yields and cultivation timing. Also, dealing with drought and rainfalls could become a challenge in areas where rising summer temperatures cause soils to become drier and less humid. It also creates a favorable environment for different sorts of infections. Although increased irrigation might be possible in some places, in other places water supplies are not sufficient.”

Dr. Alakbarov noted that while Azerbaijan is not a large contributor to climate change, compared to larger countries like Russia, China, United States and the European Union, the impact is already being felt in communities across the country. For instance, temperatures are increasing and extreme weather — like droughts and floods— is becoming more common.

A sunny and warm January day (12°c) in the rice fields of Separadi village, Lenkaran. The region is experiencing warmer than usual winters, which is threatening traditional crops.
A plowed field in Separadi village, Lenkaran. The village is one of the main rice producers in the southern region of Azerbaijan.
Mirvari Jafarova,58, and Sakina Akbarova,49, are rice farmers. Both women used to grow tea during the Soviet period, and later moved to growing rice. They became the main breadwinners for their families after their husbands passed away.
Mirvari Jafarova, 58, has been farming for over two decades. The changing weather patterns have impacted her harvests and caused financial difficulties for her family.

A 2012 World Bank analysis of Azerbaijan’s climate found that the southern region is especially vulnerable to climate change, which has troubling implications for the Azerbaijani economy as a whole, and specifically for women farmers and their families. Nearly 40 percent of jobs in Azerbaijan are in the agricultural sector, according to the latest available statistics. Women make up nearly half of all farmers in the country, and they are particularly vulnerable to any threats to the sector.

Studies have shown that women and men experience climate change impacts differently due to traditional gender roles and responsibilities. Rural women are especially vulnerable because they depend more than men on ecosystem services (such as water, forests, pasture lands, tillage, rainfall) for food security. When climate change limits access and resources, men flee villages for urban jobs in cities. But in Azerbaijan, most women stay behind and take care of households.  Because of the systemic and cultural discrimination, most women do not own their own land, and usually they have less access to resources, education and information. In addition, rural women farmers are typically excluded from decision making (as agricultural enterprises, they are less likely to have management positions), both inside and outside their households.

Currently, 34 rural communities in Azerbaijan are especially vulnerable to climate change, especially since local women do not have sufficient resources and knowledge to adapt their crops to the changing environment.

Mirvari Jafarova, 58, a farmer for over two decades in the village of Separadi, has already felt the impact of climate change. “For the last two years, there has been no snow on the fields in winter and in spring, during the planting period, heavy rains ruined vast chunk of the rice crops we cultivated. Winters without snow is pretty unusual for me, as I have grown in this village and have seen all years snow on the ground, which is necessary for crop yields,” she said.

Last year Mirvari and Sakina lost more than half (around 4 tons) of the rice they planted. As farming is the only source of income, the families felt the loss dearly.

The two women now believe they have to move away from traditional crops and begin to diversify what they plant in order to survive. “We farmers hope for the best and count on nature’s mercy after planting seeds,” Mirvari said.

In an effort to adapt to climate change, last year Sakina decided to diversify her farming practices. “I planted potato seeds with my son in our own village. Nevertheless, due to intensified rains, all of our 150 kg harvest went to waste,” she said.

Today both women are supplementing their income as seasonal workers on other farms, hoping to earn enough to make up for the lost crops.

Sakina Akbarova, 49, has already tried diversifying her crops -- she planted potatoes last year -- but extreme weather destroyed the plants before they could be harvested.
In 2009, Raftara Shukurova founded Citrus Valley, a 15-acre farm in the Isti-su district of Lenkaran. She grows citrus fruits and crops.
In 1928, feijoa, a fruit rich in vitamin C, was first brought to Azerbaijan from South America. Feijoa crops spread in the southern regions of the country, mainly in Masalli and Lenkaran, due to the subtropical climate.
Artificial irrigation systems have already been installed at Citrus Valley farm to help grow kiwi fruit.

Dr. Alakbarov underscored that local farmers are struggling with the changing climate because they lack the education and resources to adapt. But he noted that “certain adjustment measures can be made to farming practices.” For example, he said, farmers can use different varieties of traditional crops or, like Mirvari and Sakina, they can try to diversify. Changing planting dates can also help, he added.

Other women farmers in the region are also rethinking traditional farming methods. Raftara Shukurova started “Citrus Valley” farm in 2009. She grows several types of fruit— South American fekhoa, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit, lemon and tangerine— and employs around 20 people depending on the season. But she has felt the impact of the changing climate. “ Lenkeran’s climate, which used to be  subtropical and humid, is becoming like Baku’s climate dry,” she said.

“During the Soviet period, the state has decided to cultivate fekhoa in Azerbaijan  because of the favourable climate of Lenkeran villages- humid, rainy and warm. But now it is changing.”

 In recent years, the summers have been dry while there has been too much heavy rain in the springs, which makes it difficult to cultivate citrus fruit. “Two years ago, during the spring blossoming period, the fekhoa harvest was destroyed by heavy rain. But, as an employer I still had to pay my seasonal workers, which was difficult,” Raftara said.

But she remains optimistic that farmers in her community can adapt and overcome the challenges of climate change.

For example, she installed a hanging water system to create artificial humid conditions for the kiwi plants.

She also joined a state-run tourism program that encourages tourists to travel to local farms. “Tourists visit our farm in Lenkeran and spend their day helping us in certain farm activities, such as harvest picking,” Raftara said.

“When tourists from Baku or abroad visit the farm, even for a day trip, it might make them more conscious of the food chain, and climate change, so it will eventually serve to increase awareness about farming.”

While Azerbaijan is committed to address climate change challenges and implement mitigation plans under the SDGs of UN -- and the country has joined the European Union’s “EU4Climate” regional project (which is the largest project of its kind in the country) --Dr. Alakbarov noted that specific context-appropriate and serious measures have not been taken yet to address the farmers’ needs.

Seasonal employment and workers’ salaries are very dependent on the harvest.
Citrus Valley has joined the state-run “To Village” agro-tourism program, which brings tourists for a day to experience farm life. Raftara Shukurova plans to build farm’s infrastructure further for the agro-tourism expansion.
Farmer Raftara Shukurova’s kiwi and feijoa trees. Shukurova has already installed irrigation systems and other equipment to help offset the impact of changing weather patterns.
“Increased CO2 levels can affect crop yields and cultivation timing. Also, dealing with drought and rainfalls could become a challenge in areas where rising summer temperatures cause the soil to become drier and less humid,” says climate change expert Dr. Fariz Alakbarov.

This article was produced as part of the partnership between Chai Khana and Femiskop.

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