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PhD defence

Cotton, control, and continuity in disguise: The political economy of agrarian transformation in lowland Tajikistan

Thursday 10 January 2019
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden

What constitutes the political economy of agrarian transformation in post-socialist Tajikistan? How and to what extent does capital accumulation in the agrarian economy occur? These are the principal questions of this thesis, which is inspired by neo-Marxist theories on rural capital accumulation and extraction.

The focus is southwest lowland Tajikistan, where the Soviet heritage continues to shape the agrarian political economy. To examine the agrarian question in 21st century Tajikistan means taking into account both agrarian production relations and dynamics at the micro-level of rural households, and macro-level developments such as the entry of foreign agri-businesses and international labour migration. 

Theoretically this thesis has been informed by critical peasant studies, including agrarian political economy and rural livelihood analyses. In particular, this thesis addresses property rights, the anthropology of debt and the logic of cotton production in order to understand the continuity in agrarian production relations and local land politics. Regarding property relations, I contend that we cannot understand actual, effective control over land if we do not unpack ownership as a bundle of rights, and untangle formal property from access and ability to exploit a resource, in this context land. “The concept of control” (Burawoy 1985, 26) is central in my analyses, i.e. “whom or what is being controlled, for what ends, how, and by whom” – in line with Bernstein’s (2010) questions on the agrarian political economy. In so doing the aim is to contribute to studies on agrarian transformation both within as well as outside the former Soviet and post-socialist realm. Innovative in terms of its analyses, this thesis firstly not only focuses on domestic state-society relations, but also on the way in which international financial institutions and foreign donors interact with the state. Secondly, unlike most studies informed by agrarian political economy that tend to pay little attention to nature and geography, this thesis explicitly looks at the way in which altitude, remoteness and crop specificities interact with the political economy. These issues are examined in an introductory chapter, four separate articles and a concluding chapter.

Among other conclusions, I contend that sheer access to arable land in Tajikistan alone is no guarantee for rural well-being. Arable land has little value when actors lack the capability to make effective use of it. In this regard Tajikistan diverges from the dynamics of the “global land grab,” in which agricultural land is (re)discovered by financial institutions as a highly lucrative asset. Furthermore, I conclude that Tajikistan’s pathway of agrarian change is characterised by a strong continuation in terms of relations of production; hence its title: cotton, control and continuity in disguise. This has been the case in spite of the opening up and liberalisation of the economy; the exposure to the world market and the forging of transnational relations. Many actors in Tajikistan itself are unaware of this striking continuity, in part because reform statistics only focus on “progress” and “change.” Relations of dependency have continued, and that is why I refer to Burawoy’s (2001b) “transition without transformation”: under capitalist relations of production – a new order – we can observe continuity. Agrarian production relations carry a stamp of serfdom, as rural dwellers continue to be tied to land and are unable to build up an independent rural livelihood.

Genuine rural development and an improvement of rural wellbeing in Tajikistan can only be realised when farmers’ and rural dwellers’ autonomy is achieved. This entails decision-making power and control over farmland and farm revenues. It would require a thorough alteration in power relationships within the agrarian economy.


Irna Hofman

Irna Hofman

Irna Hofman was born on 10 January 1983 in Groningen, The Netherlands. She received a B.Sc. degree from Wageningen University (and Research) (2005) with a major in Environmental Sciences (specialisation Environmental Policy and Management) and a minor in Rural Development Sociology. She went on to obtain her M.Sc. (2007) in Environmental Sciences (specialisation Environmental Policy and Management) also at Wageningen University with a minor in Rural Sociology. As part of her M.Sc. programme she conducted a six-month internship at the Dutch NGO Mileukontakt Oost-Europa (later named Milieukontakt International), a period in which her interests in the post-socialist realm really expanded, resulting in a M.Sc. thesis that examined the relationship between sustainable land use and agrarian transformation in Uzbekistan. Directly after her M.Sc. studies she embarked on a research position in Germany. Between 2007 and 2009 she was a junior researcher at the department of Development Sociology at the Center for Development Research (Zentrum für Entwicklungsforschung (ZEF)), an institute of the University of Bonn, where she successfully completed the course programme of the Bonn International Graduate School for Development Research. In her position as a junior researcher at ZEF she examined the political economy of rural transformation in Khorezm, a province in western Uzbekistan. She was also affiliated with the Rural Sociology group at Wageningen University during this period. At ZEF her research project was part of a larger interdisciplinary project team which focused on economic and ecological restructuring of land and water use in the region of Khorezm, Uzbekistan.

In 2009 Hofman returned to the Netherlands and, intrigued by the developments related to “land grabbing,” she started looking at Chinese foreign agricultural land investments. In 2011 she was appointed as research assistant by the Chair of Chinese Economy and Development at Leiden University. In 2012 she initiated her Ph.D. research focused on the political economy of agrarian transformation in lowland Tajikistan. Over the course of the years she has combined her Ph.D. duties with a part-time position as research and lecturing assistant, and later as lecturer, within the BA and MA International Studies at Leiden University (Institute for Area Studies). Additionally, she attended courses and reading groups in agrarian political economy at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) (part of Erasmus University Rotterdam) in The Hague. In 2014, she was a temporary research fellow (2014) at IAMO, the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (Halle/S in Germany). Fascinated by the rise of “China” in Central Asia (and beyond), she initiated an international academic workshop focused on the contemporary presence of Chinese actors in the former Soviet Union border zone at Leiden University in 2016.

Hofman published a few (single-authored and one co-authored) articles in leading international academic journals and a few book chapters. She is a member of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS), the Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (LUCIS), and Nedworc Association, a professional network of development cooperation experts. Hofman actively engages in political and societal debates focused on sustainable agriculture, developments in the post-socialist realm, cotton production, and the politics of agrarian labour, by publishing short articles in popular media and sharing her opinion and insights on social media.

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