“I’ve been doing this job for 3 years,” explained Zeki Kaya. “There are no factories in this region, and I don’t see a future in farming. I’m doing this because I don’t want to migrate to the west [of Turkey].”
Somewhere in the distance, a patrol car sounds, bringing an end to the night’s illegal trade. In a split-second, Zeki has packed up his stall, and is gone without a trace.
Despite the risks of pursuing a trade which may put him in jail, Zeki counts himself lucky to have a source of income in a region where experts estimate that more than half of the young labour force migrate westward, in search of employment in the construction and tourism sector.
For now, Zeki and the others like him, seem to have found a quick-fix solution to south and southeast Anatolia’s 60% unemployment rate.
But life didn’t begin in the smuggling trade for Zeki. Coming from a generation of prosperous sheep farmers, he and his family saw their agrarian lifestyle and traditions brought to an abrupt end, when clashes between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) intensified in the 80s and 90s.
The conflict provoked the Turkish government to implement a ‘forced migration’ policy from the 80s through to the mid-90s. The consequences were to have an adverse effect on the animal husbandry sector, as up to 4000 villages in the eastern Turkish border cities were emptied.
As a result of the forced migrations, Zeki grew up a city-dweller, and is now part of a growing population of youths in Van who show little inclination of returning to the fields.
Interest in the agricultural sector among youths may be minimal. However, the predominantly Kurdish populated southeast boasts little industrial development when compared with western Turkey, and still depends heavily on agriculture.
According to agricultural professor at Van university, Adnan Yavic, it is the image of ageing and unproductive smallholder farmers, still reliant on traditional farming methods, that deter younger generations from showing an interest in farming.
“The problem in Van is the dominance of small-scale farming, where people with one or two cows consider themselves as farmers. The land is often subdivided into small plots between people, and this leads to less output and produces little surplus to be sold on for profit,” explained Yavic.
Up till the 80s, Turkey was one of the few self-sufficient middle income countries. However, changes in domestic and agricultural policies, along with a lack of government support toward farmers, has increased the country’s reliance on imports over the years.
The drive to transform Turkey from an agricultural nation into an industrial one during the 80s, also decreased interest in farming, as people started to migrate to urban areas.
“The change in policy in the 80s led people to view agriculture as an outdated profession. During that period, many people migrated from the rural to developing urban areas,” said Necip Altunli, President of the Van Agricultural Engineers’ Union.
Currently, 76 percent of Turkey’s total population live in urban areas, and in order to meet the needs of a growing population, agricultural experts in Van agree that youths in the region must be encouraged back to farming. But this may only happen if farmers learn to form efficient cooperatives and work with more modern techniques that will lead to better outputs and incomes.
The DAP (Southern Anatolian) project, introduced 2-years ago by the government, aims to provide more support to farmers in southeastern Turkey.
The project gives grants toward the purchase of new machinery and the construction of modern farms, and encourages farmers to modernise their techniques and increase their production yields.
The first to take advantage of this scheme was farmer and president of the Van Commodity Exchange, Feridun Irak. In 2012, he came together with 25 other entrepreneurial farmers in order to establish the first collective organic farm company in Van. He hopes that others in the region will follow suit.
“Most farmers still use traditional farming techniques and they aren’t open to innovation. Ours is a 95000m2 farm that aims to be a model demonstrating to others, the ways in which a group system produces higher and better quality produce, whether it be in terms of livestock or crops,” commented Irak.
Irak forecasts that a modernisation in farming techniques and higher productivity in the region may hold the key to attracting more youths to the agricultural sector.
Former President of the Sheep Breeder’s Union, Ibrahim Koyuncu asserted that youngsters would only turn to farming when they saw they could generate a substantial profit. He described how the lack of security in farming currently deterred young people from becoming farmers.
Stating that a lack of governmental support prevented farmers from competing with goods coming in from abroad, Koyuncu emphasised that a focused agricultural policy that met international standards was required by Turkish farmers.
“In Europe and America, farmers are assured a fixed price for what they produce. Here [Turkey], I might buy a sheep for a certain price one day, but due to regular fluctuations in market prices, I might have to sell it for cheaper than I bought it. That way I make a loss rather than a profit”
Experts in the agricultural sector agree that the prospects of a stable income will encourage more youth interest. However, in order to satisfy the demands of a youth accustomed to modern comforts, this may not be enough.
“Today, youngsters are used to having a wide social network of friends, as well as regular internet access. They think that they won’t have such a lifestyle in a village. One idea would be to upgrade villages in this area, so that they include more modern amenities on site,” explained Yavic
This article was originally long-listed for the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition. It was published on the Guardian website on 30 May 2012.