Growing concerns in Sarikhanli village after land use changes to boost cotton growing

In Sarikhanli, a village in Azerbaijan’s southern Imishli District, residents worry about losing their livelihood after the pastures they use to breed livestock were repurposed for cotton growing. They say they will have to give up the whole area, some 4,200 ha, until spring – and that Azerbaijan’s powerful Minister of Emergency Situations, Kamaladdin Heydarov, is responsible.

According to locals, the land was repurposed in 2018, following an order of the Cabinet of Ministers. The pastures, they were told, were going to be used to grow cotton.

“They are taking the grazing land that farmers have leased for 15 years to plant cotton and other things”, Elkhan Tarverdiev, a Sarikhanli resident, says.

So far, only part of the 4,200 ha of land has been used to plant cotton and mulberry trees, but Tarverdiev fears that villagers will have to give up the whole area soon.

Sarkhanli resident Elkhan Tarverdiev
Sarkhanli resident Elkhan Tarverdiev Photographer: Meydan TV

“The head of the district executive authorities recently told us there was an order issued by Kamaladdin Heydarov that we must vacate the entire area”, Tarverdiev says. The area is supposed to be divided into cropland and pastures, he tells Meydan TV. He believes that Heydarov wants the land for himself.

Another villager, Zahid Ismayilov, says that two employees of Gilan Holding, a company founded by the Heydarov family and partly owned by the president’s daughters, Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva, told him they were Kamaladdin Heydarov’s men and that the land was theirs now.

“What are we supposed to do? I invested $27,000 into this farm. I haven’t even managed to recuperate the money”, Tarverdiev says, “Our house, our barn and our cattle are on this land. People say that we will be evicted in March or April already. But what about our property, all our efforts, and our work? What are we supposed to do about that?”

No other source of income

For the overwhelming majority of the Sarikhanli population, breeding livestock is the only source of income and the only way to make a living. If the land is taken away from them, the men say, they won’t know how to provide for their families.

Villager Aladdin Huseynov
Villager Aladdin Huseynov Photographer: Meydan TV

“We have turned to everyone – the Presidential Administration, Mehriban Aliyeva, and the Executive Authorities of the Imishli district”, explains Aladdin Huseynov, who lives in the village, “Everyone says the same thing, that the land belongs to the state, that they have given it to us for temporary use, and that they are taking it back now. Even though we lease this land. We have a lease agreement, they have no right to take this land away from us, but they still do.”

With no other means of income, villagers are also concerned about paying back the government loans they had to take to develop their farms.

They demand compensation for the damage they have suffered, but authorities say their complaints are groundless.

Authorities deny requests to give up land 

The head of the land management department of the Imishli district executive authorities confirmed to Meydan TV that part of the land in the area would be used to grow cotton, but denied that the villagers' pastures would be touched. 

Meydan TV also spoke to a representative of the village authorities who said that no one was asking the farmers to leave their land, and that there was “no point in exaggerating this.”

According to lawyer Vagif Aliyev, Sarikhanli residents could turn to the Economic Court to resolve the matter, as a 2017 regulation provides for compensation in the case of loss of land for both owners and lessees, either in the form of a plot of land of the same size or a compensation payment.    

In a 2018 Meydan TV report on Azerbaijani cotton, economist Natiq Jafarli explained that executive authorities can abuse legislative changes on land ownership made in 2016 to pressure farmers into growing certain produce, and that farmers often resort to sowing cotton out of fear of losing their land.