Climate crisis put Azerbaijan’s female farmers in peril

August 28, 2023
6 mins read
Image: Chichek Bayramli

Southern Azerbaijan, like many other regions around the world, is grappling with the profound impacts of human-induced climate change. In this corner of the globe, the confluence of rising temperatures and aggressive land acquisition has led to a troubling era of water scarcity and heightened distress for local farmers. the pervasive privatization of agricultural enterprises has reduced these farmers to mere laborers, with women bearing a disproportionate burden and facing heightened vulnerability in the face of these sweeping transformations. Among them, it’s the female farmers who bear the brunt of this transformation, grappling with heightened vulnerability.

By delving into the stories of three resilient women who till the land, we uncover the hidden challenges they confront and the remarkable strength they muster in the face of this dynamic upheaval. Their experiences serve as a microcosm of a larger, urgent issue unfolding globally.

Nestled between Iran and the Caspian Sea, the villages in Lankaran district have 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 higher 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 sunny January day, with the temperature reaching a balmy 12°C, the golden rays of the sun blanket the picturesque rice fields of Separadi village in Lenkaran. However, beneath this idyllic scene lies a growing concern: the region is grappling with increasingly warmer winters, posing a significant threat to the cultivation of traditional crops. Image: Chichek Bayramli

Local scientists warn that changes in temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), and intensity of extreme weather could have significant impacts on crop yields. Increased CO2 levels affect crop yields and cultivation timing. Also, dealing with drought and rainfalls could pose a challenge in areas where rising summer temperatures cause soils to become drier and less humid. It also creates a favorable environment for different forms of plant infections. Although increased irrigation might be possible in some places, in other parts water supplies are not sufficient.

While Azerbaijan is not on the list of top contributors to climate change, as compared to highly industrialized economies, 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.

The southern part of the country is especially vulnerable to climate change, having troubling consequences for female farmers and their families. Nearly 40 percent of jobs in Azerbaijan are in the agricultural sector, according to the official statistics. Women make up nearly half of all the farmers in the country, and they are particularly vulnerable to any threats to the sector.

Nestled within Separadi village, Lenkaran, a plowed field stands as a testament to the agricultural prowess of the settlement renowned as one of the primary rice producers in the southern expanse of Azerbaijan. Image: Chichek Bayramli

Research findings have consistently demonstrated that the impacts of climate change affect women and men in dissimilar ways, primarily due to the prevalence of traditional gender roles and associated responsibilities. In rural settings, women, in particular, face heightened vulnerability owing to their greater reliance on ecosystem services such as water, forests, pasture lands, tillage, and rainfall for ensuring food security. 

Consequently, as climate change diminishes access to these vital resources, men often leave their villages to pursue urban employment opportunities in Baku, Russia, Turkey, or Eastern Europe, leaving women to shoulder the burden of caring for households.

The context of Azerbaijan exemplifies this gendered disparity, where a significant proportion of women remain in rural areas despite adverse conditions. However, systemic and cultural discrimination compounds their vulnerability, as most women do not possess land ownership rights and typically encounter restricted access to crucial resources, education, and information. Furthermore, when land grabbing by large agricultural corporations occurs, female farmers are often marginalized from decision-making processes, rendering them unable to protect their land rights effectively. Consequently, they are disproportionately compelled to transition into wage laborers on their lands.

Presently, 34 rural communities in Azerbaijan are identified as vulnerable to climate change impacts, with a particular focus on the challenges faced by local women residing predominantly in the country’s southern regions. These women encounter significant obstacles due to their limited access to essential resources and knowledge to adapt their agricultural practices in response to the evolving environmental conditions.

Fifty-eight-year-old, Mirvari Jafarova has been farming for over two decades. The changing weather patterns have impacted her harvests and caused financial difficulties for her family. Image: Chichek Bayramli

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 a vast chunk of the rice crops we cultivated. Winters without snow are pretty unusual for me, as I have grown up in this village and seen snow on the ground, which is necessary for crop yields,” she said.

In the preceding year, Mirvari and Sakina, two farmers, encountered a substantial setback in their agricultural practice. They experienced a staggering loss of over half of the rice they had cultivated, which amounted to approximately 4 tons. Given that farming is their sole source of income, the families were deeply impacted by this significant loss, causing considerable financial hardship and distress.

The two women now believe they have to move away from monocropping 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.

Mirvari Jafarova and Sakina Akbarova (49) used to grow tea during the Soviet period, but later moved to growing rice. They became the main breadwinners for their families after their husbands passed away. Image: Chichek Bayramli

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 feijoa (a native flowering plant to Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay), 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 dry like Baku’s micro climate,” she said.

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

Farmer Raftara Shukurova has already installed irrigation systems and other equipment to help offset the impact of changing weather patterns. Image: Chichek Bayramli
In 1928, vitamin C-rich feijoa arrived in Azerbaijan from South America, finding a home in the subtropical climate of the southern regions, particularly in Masalli and Lenkaran. Image: Chichek Bayramli

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 fruits. “Two years ago, during the spring blooming period, the feijoa 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 female farmers in her community can adapt and overcome the challenges of climate change.

For example, she herself 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.”

Artificial irrigation systems have already been installed at Citrus Valley farm to help grow kiwi fruit. Image: Chichek Bayramli
Seasonal employment and workers’ salaries are very dependent on the harvest. Image: Chichek Bayramli
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 the farm’s infrastructure further for the agro-tourism expansion. Image: Chichek Bayramli

These narratives exemplify the hurdles confronting female farmers in Azerbaijan’s southern region, where climate change, notably rising temperatures and reduced rainfall, poses significant challenges. Land grabbing compounds these difficulties, hindering effective adaptation.

Furthermore, these stories highlight the complexities surrounding traditional crop cultivation methods and their impact on adopting new farming practices. Defining what’s considered traditional further complicates matters, affecting female farmers’ ability to adapt to climate shifts.

A recent 2022 analysis reveals a worsening situation. Water scarcity has intensified, aggravating their struggles. Border tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have also arisen, creating additional obstacles in accessing food markets for their diverse crops.

In summary, the predicament of Azerbaijani female farmers underscores the intricate nature of agricultural climate adaptation, where gender dynamics, land issues, and evolving geopolitics intersect to influence these women’s livelihoods amidst climate and human-induced changes.

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

Photographs by Chichek Bayramli, an architect who dabbles in photography and illustration.


Ilaha Abasli

Ilaha is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam). She holds a Master's degree in International Development and Emerging Economies from King's College London. She writes on climate change, material circularity, and its social aspects in the context of the Global South.

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