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Country profile - Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the eighth largest country in the world, and the size of Western Europe (World Bank)
Kazakhstan is the eighth largest country in the world, and the size of Western Europe
World Bank

The last former Soviet republic to gain independence, Kazakhstan has emerged from communist rule as a superpower-in-waiting. The country has boomed in the last decade as a result of exploiting its enormous oil, natural gas and mineral wealth. But it continues to live in the shadow of its communist past, plagued by the relics of Soviet policies that devastated and contaminated large areas of agricultural land, leaving many rural communities excluded from the country's new-found prosperity.

Although Kazakhstan is classed as a middle-income country, rural poverty is widespread. The transition from a centrally-planned to a market economy brought about a decline in many state-provided agricultural services, and enduring problems of soil degradation and a lack of infrastructure have resulted in abandonment and underutilisation of agricultural land. Despite some 70 per cent of the country's land resources - around 186 million ha - being dedicated to crops and animal husbandry, agriculture accounts for less than 10 per cent of GDP and the sector employs around 20 per cent of the population.

Agriculture, a wasted resource

Over a third of Kazakhstanis' livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on the country's extensive rangelands for food, fodder, fuel and medicinal plants. Widespread stockbreeding reflects the country's nomadic tradition, with around 75 per cent of all agricultural land used for grazing. While sheep breeding dominates the sector, cattle, pig, horse and camel rearing are important sources of food and income. The rangelands are also of worldwide importance, contributing to the global carbon balance by storing large amounts of greenhouse gas, which has potential to be traded with high-carbon producing nations

Cattle, pig, horse and camel rearing are important sources of food and income (©FAO/23447/L. Miuccio)
Cattle, pig, horse and camel rearing are important sources of food and income
©FAO/23447/L. Miuccio

The main crop-growing area is in the northern steppe, where high quality spring wheat is the primary cash crop. Spurred by government subsidies to help stabilise yields, the country harvested over 20 million metric tonnes of wheat in 2007. The industry has also been buoyed by recent commodity price hikes and the country has become one of the largest wheat producers in the world. Comparatively minor food crops include barley, maize, rice, potatoes and soybeans.

Once considered the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan still suffers from the effects of agricultural and environmental mismanagement during the Soviet era. The ill-fated Virgin Lands programme, introduced in 1954, saw millions of hectares of northern Kazakhstan and the Altai region ploughed up for grain cultivation. By the 1960s the effects of single-crop cultivation and lack of anti-erosion measures had caused widespread soil infertility and millions of tonnes of soil were lost to wind erosion.

Cotton is currently the country's most important industrial crop, with nearly half-a-million tonnes harvested in the Southern Region in 2007, and the planted area growing year-on-year. However, the Ministry of Agriculture plans to boost its fledgling biofuel industry by using oilseed rape and wheat as feedstocks. Once the industry is established, the government expects annual production levels of around 300,000 litres for biodiesel and 1 billion litres for bioethanol, making Kazakhstan one of the largest biofuel producers in the world.

Sea changes

Decades of environmental mismanagement have taken their toll on Kazakhstan's two seas, the Caspian and Aral. The Aral Sea is a well-documented environmental catastrophe: once a thriving fishery, water levels in this landlocked sea have plummeted, resulting in high salinity, devastated fish stocks and desertification. The Aral's decline was brought about by Soviet planners diverting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate fields for production of cotton, the so-called "white gold" of Central Asia. In 1960 the surface area of the Sea was 68,000km sq; by 2004 it had shrunk to 17,000 km sq. Poorly built irrigation canals accelerated the decline in sea levels, with up to 70 per cent of water lost to runoff and evaporation. Beached fishing boats stranded in deserts up to 100km from the ever-retreating shore are poignant reminders of this manmade disaster.

Efforts have been made to replenish the Aral, with the World Bank funding the construction of a recently-completed 8-mile dyke in the North Aral, and the fish population has been restocked. With further efforts upstream, water levels have risen significantly in recent years, with local fishermen reporting a 10-fold increase in catch in 2006.

Livestock are essential to the survival of Kazakhstan's rural population (World Bank)
Livestock are essential to the survival of Kazakhstan's rural population
World Bank

The Caspian Sea - site of the Kashgan oil field - has suffered reduced fish stocks as a result of oil extraction, and overfishing of sturgeon for the lucrative caviar trade. Almost 90 per cent of the world's caviar comes from the Caspian and, despite international efforts, poachers continue to bribe authorities in order to land the coveted catch.

Nuclear testing during the Soviet era has also left an indelible mark on the landscape, contaminating large areas of agricultural land around the remote eastern city of Semey, in an area known as the "Polygon". Over 500 nuclear explosions were carried out above and below ground in the region during the Cold War causing long-lasting damage to agriculture and health of the residents. Continued grazing on land in the Polygon has resulted in contaminated grass entering the food chain, and over 100,000 inhabitants suffer from radiation-related diseases.

Raising the profile of agriculture

Much of Kazakhstan's recent economic success has been concentrated in urban areas, but dependence on oil and natural gas has left the country vulnerable to commodity price shocks. Diversification is essential - including the restructuring and strengthening of the agricultural sector through the provision of improved extension services and developing rural infrastructure. However, with rural populations so long left to struggle with the relics of ill-conceived Soviet planning, it is crucial to the future growth and stability of the country as a whole that agriculture is given every assistance, as a matter of some urgency.

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of Kazakhstan
  • Capital: Astana
  • Area: 2,717,300 sq km
  • Population: 15,284,929 (July 2007 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 0.35% (2007 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 67.22 years
  • Ethnic groups: Kazakh (Qazaq) 53.4%, Russian 30%, Ukrainian 3.7%, Uzbek 2.5%, German 2.4%, Tatar 1.7%, Uygur 1.4%, other 4.9% (1999 census)
  • Languages: Kazakh (Qazaq, state language) 64.4%, Russian (official, used in everyday business, designated the "language of interethnic communication") 95% (2001 est.)
  • Inflation: 8.6% (2006 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: $143.4 billion (2006 est.)
  • GDP per capita: $9,400 (2006 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 5.7%; industry: 39.8%; services: 54.4% (2006 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 8.28%; permanent crops: 0.05%; other: 91.67% (2005)
  • Major industries: oil, coal, iron ore, manganese, chromite, lead, zinc, copper, titanium, bauxite, gold, silver, phosphates, sulfur, iron and steel; tractors and other agricultural machinery, electric motors, construction materials
  • Agricultural products: grain (mostly spring wheat), cotton; livestock
  • Natural resources: major deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, manganese, chrome ore, nickel, cobalt, copper, molybdenum, lead, zinc, bauxite, gold, uranium
  • Export commodities: oil and oil products 58%, ferrous metals 24%, chemicals 5%, machinery 3%, grain, wool, meat, coal (2001)
  • Export partners: Germany 12.4%, Russia 11.6%, China 11%, Italy 10.5%, France 7.5%, Romania 5% (2006)

Date published: January 2008


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