Armenian migrant workers turn to farming amid pandemic

Journalist: Amalia Margarian
Edition: Transition
Topic: Health

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced thousands of  Armenians, mostly men, to stay at home instead of heading to Russia or elsewhere for seasonal work. While the abrupt end of seasonal work—which often paid better than what was locally available—has presented a hardship for families, it has created new opportunities for some villages. 

Every year, between 80 and 100 residents of Berdavan village, a community of 3500 in Armenia’s lush and mountainous Tavush region, leave to work abroad, mainly in Russia. They are among the 75,000 international migrant workers who have left the country since 2017-2018, according to the latest statistics available.

An estimated 65 percent of the migrant workers leave the country for between three and 12 months.

But this year, the migration has changed, according to the head of village administration, Smbat Mughdusyan. If before he witnessed a steady emptying of the village every year around March, in 2020, Armenian families living in Russia sought permission to return to Berdavan to live during the pandemic.

For the men who normally leave to work in Russia for several months out of the year, Mughdusyan says the pandemic has been bittersweet: they were given the chance to spend more time with their families but were robbed of the work they depend on to feed their children.

"There are people who have not felt the sweetness of spending time with their children for many years. They have been away from their children and families, but today they are next to their children. At the same time, this situation affects the human psyche, because a difficult financial period begins, ”he notes.

Mughdusyan believes most men will leave once the borders reopen—remittances from Russia are a vital part of families’ livelihoods and the Armenian budget. But in the meantime, the boon in workers has been good for the village: families are reengaging in agriculture and some are helping the village build new roads and other needed agriculture.

Eric Hakhverdyan used to leave the village every year to work as a waiter in Russia. This year, Covid-19 disrupted his plans. But it also gave him the chance to work on his dream job: opening a guesthouse in the village so he can earn enough money to stay in Armenia.

Hakhverdyan started working on the little hotel last year and, if the pandemic had not happened, it would have opened this year. Instead, he has been out of work for four months and has not been able to pay to finish the construction. But, he and his mother decided to use the time to expand the garden.

In part, they are working the land to help feed the family today. But in the future, the garden with kiwi, banana trees and wild fruit will add to the allure of their guesthouse and help develop agritourism in the area, Hakhverdyan notes.

The family is also cultivating grapes and barley. His mother, Anush, is raising chickens to sell as well.

"There is no work we can do now, now we have gone back to agriculture, but that is just to earn our leaving," Hakhverdyan says.

Arkady Hanisyan and his family also reside in Berdavan. They spent a decade earning their livelihood in Russia, so no one was farming the land or keeping animals. Today, however, Hanisyan is using his construction skills to help the village: for the past few days he has been driving the excavator that is demolishing the old village road to pave the way for a new one.

"I have been involved in road construction for three or four days now, I have informed the construction team that I can drive the equipment, and they have allowed me to work for a daily fee, but I can't say how long it will last," he notes.

He and his wife, Anna, have turned back to agriculture, farming a plot they own near the village and raising chickens. Before the virus, they never depended on a harvest and usually just gave the crops to relations. Today, however, they will sell the harvest to earn money and they have received an interest-free agriculture loan from the government to buy a cow.

"If this continues, we will be locked in the house, but at least we will be engaged in agriculture and cattle breeding. We will see what will happen with us," Hanisyan says.

In the nearby village of Baghanis, a community of 350, around 20 to 25 men usually leave for Russia every year. This year, 20 stayed home due to the pandemic.

Some have found temporary work in the nearby city of Noyemberyan, while others have been hired as contract soldiers. Traditionally their families did not cultivate the land because the men were not at home during the warm weather. Now, however, several have applied to lease farm land.

The land is good, notes the locals, but it is close to the Azerbaijani border and is often under fire from the soldiers stationed nearby.

Garik Sahakyan is a resident of the border village of Baghanis in the Tavush region. He and his two older brothers, Gagik and Gevorg, usually travel to Russia in May for work and return home in November so they can spend the winter with their family. The pandemic forced them to stay home this year so now two brothers are living together with their families, a total of ten people, including five small children.

Sahakyan has a small vineyard in the village and a family vegetable plot. While it is not enough to sell, it provides some food for the family. Now, he is thinking of expanding and buying livestock.

"If this situation does not pass, the border does not open, we will do something. Who would have thought that we could sit at home without work? We have always had our job. Now, if I know that the border will be closed, I will raise animals, otherwise how can I take care of these children?”

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