Photo: Felix Gaedtke
Source: Al Jazeera English
Thousands of Punjabi farmers have bought land in distant Georgia lured by cheap prices, angering some locals.
Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran
Samgori, Georgia - Larisa Maisuradze was astonished to see the sudden proliferation of foreigners driving farm machinery near her sleepy village, about 25 kilometres south of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Her home is sandwiched between the lone street that runs through the small village of Samgori on one side, and a vast tract of underutilised farmland on the other.
"I didn't know what was going on, I was so surprised," Maisuradze recounted on a recent afternoon. "There were all these Indian farmers driving tractors here."
Maisuradze said the unusual scene from that day months ago are etched in her memory, as she never imagined she'd have so many neighbours from a land so far away.
The Indians Maisuradze witnessed that day were the first wave of many who have come to Georgia to farm land in the Caucasus region in recent months.
Here's the radio piece we did on the subject for Asia Calling
[soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/87808715" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
The government is seeking to bolster domestic agricultural production to help Georgia become more food self-sufficient. Most Georgians farm small plots of land for sustenance only, not enough for commercial production.
Agricultural production has plummeted from 12.8 percent of the country's GDP in 2006 to just 8.3 percent at present.
Georgia has stepped up the immigration of people with agricultural know-how and farmland sales to foreigners, as the country's abundant and agriculturally potent conditions have not been properly utilised by local farmers.
Many Georgians, however, view the influx of foreign farmers as an "invasion". Estimates suggest thousands of Indian farmers - mostly from the northern state of Punjab - have immigrated since 2012.
Maisuradze admits it was difficult to develop relationships with the new arrivals, but it didn't take her long to realise they were "nice people".
"There's no drinking water in the fields, so they always come here to drink water. I give them water and in return they always bring me some vegetables from the farm - tomatoes or potatoes or something else. They are nice people, very hardworking and calm," said Maisuradze.
Ramandeep Singh Palhan, a Sikh farmer from Punjab, owns nearly 30 hectares (74 acres) of farmland that stretches beyond Maisuradze's home.
One of the reasons Palhan chose Georgia is because land here is so inexpensive.
"I can buy a hectare of land for US$1,000-$1,500. I can't imagine finding something that cheap in Punjab," the bearded farmer said. "You can't compare the prices. I sold one hectare of my land in Punjab and with that money I could buy 200 hectares [495 acres] of land in Georgia."
Palhan grows wheat, potatoes, garlic, onion and a variety of other crops. The 42-year-old recently walked through a fresh morning mist that hung over his fields, and bent down to grab a handful of dirt.
"Feel the texture of the soil, it's great. It's very suitable for the crops we'd like to grow. It's not very different from the soil we have back home," he said.
Stroking his turban he added jokingly: "I am a true Punjabi at heart. We have this inherent hunger for buying more and more land. There's not one Punjabi who is satisfied with the land he owns."
Though he is trying to adapt to Georgian life, Palhan faces some hurdles. The culture and language are "different", and the food is "not spicy".
"Of course, I miss my family and my friends but most of all makki di roti aur sarso da saag [corn bread and mustard spiced curry]," he said longingly.
Palhan found out about agricultural investment opportunities in Georgia through a newspaper advertisement by an immigration agency.
Posters welcoming immigrants to Georgia are stuck on the walls of Crown Immigration Consultancy Services office on the top floor of a shopping mall in a Tbilisi suburb.
The agency has facilitated the migration of about 2,000 farmers since last year, according to Dharamjit Singh Saini, executive director of the firm, who also hails from Punjab.
Punjabi farmers find Georgia attractive because of the lack of red tape, said Saini. "Everything is transparent … and there's no corruption here - unlike India. If all goes well, there will be more [Indians] to come."
The agency is also planning to open a Georgian-Russian-language school in Jalandhar in Punjab state to prepare farmers before they head to their new home.
Not everyone is content with recent developments. Georgian farmers with small and medium-sized farms complain while the government facilitates foreign investment in agriculture, it doesn't encourage local farmers.
Raul Babunashvili is the founder of the Georgian Farmers' Union. On a weekday the union's office in Tbilisi is buzzing with activity. Sacks of seed are brought in to the storage hall, and farming equipment is briskly bought and sold.
Babunashvili, 71, sits in a quiet office far from all the distraction. "In the past, the government neglected agriculture. It wasn't a priority for them. That made the farmers so broke that they have no choice but to sell their lands at a pittance to foreigners - and here let me specifically mention the Indian farmers."
The union founder admitted the inadequacies of local agriculturalists, but said the government should focus on Georgians instead of foreigners to boost food production.
"Georgian farmers lack the know-how and skills. We don't have the resources to invest in building infrastructure. That's why Georgian farmers are lagging behind, while Indians come and literally grab their land for the cheapest prices."
Babunashvili said he doesn't have any statistics on how much land Indian farmers own in Georgia, but he wants immediate government action to halt foreigners from buying up prime agricultural areas.
"We must stop this invasion of land-buyers from India. I call it invasion because they are coming in massive numbers," said Babunashvili.
Paying heed to 'black sheep'
In an interview, Agriculture Minister David Kirvalidze was asked whether the government was ignoring the needs of Georgian farmers.
Kirvalidze said they were not made a priority by past governments, but added his administration was paying attention to the "black sheep in the family" - Georgia's agriculture sector - after it came to power in October 2012.
"We are trying to bring the rural Georgian population back to life, back to business. We are making huge investments, you will see the results in the coming months. I ask you to return after seven-eight months," Kirvalidze said.
The government under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has increased funding for agriculture by more than 60 percent from the previous budget, he noted. And a fund worth about US$600m was also created in January to provide credit for small farmers.
Georgia imports 80 percent of its packaged food products, a problem that negatively affects the economy. "It's nonsense, real nonsense," Kirvalidze said. "Georgian farmers have very good natural resources: soil, water and climate."
Although Kirvalidze stressed improving conditions for Georgian farmers, he doesn't shun foreigners. "Any kind of investment, foreign, local or domestic - we welcome all. Every single investor who is looking to build up long-term relationships with us is welcome," he said.
Ranjot Singh - who owns 150 hectares of farmland land in Georgia - saw yet another business opportunity with the wave of Punjabi immigrants.
"We are running an inexpensive hotel and canteen for the new arrivals. When they arrive, they can come here and feel at home. They can speak Punjabi and eat Punjabi food and get to know other Punjabis in Tbilisi," Singh said.
But for Singh, Georgia doesn't feel like home. "Georgians are very nice people. But we are very different from them. The culture is different, even the religion is different. But there's a business opportunity here."