Opening speech by Ilham Aliyev at the conference on development of cotton-growing in Azerbaijan

17 september 2016, 11:00

Today's meeting is dedicated to the development of cotton production in the country. The fact that the meeting is being held in Sabirabad District is not accidental. In the 1970s and early 1980s, great leader Heydar Aliyev held annual regional meetings in Sabirabad. Those meetings handed out very valuable instructions related to cotton growing. Staying true to this tradition, I have chosen Sabirabad District as the venue of the first nationwide meeting on the development of cotton production. I am sure that both in Sabirabad and all other districts engaged in cotton production, the restoration of cotton growing will go faster and we will return cotton growing its former glory. This sector brings great incomes both to people and the state.

In the 1970-1980s, the great leader took me along when visiting Sabirabad and other districts engaged in cotton growing. In those years, I was alongside him in Sabirabad and attended those meetings. I was there with him in meetings with cotton growers in cotton fields and camps. So those memories live on in my heart, and it is now even more obvious how far-sighted and attached to the people great leader Heydar Aliyev was. He knew perfectly well that cotton-growing held a very important place in the development of Azerbaijan as a union republic and the well-being of Azerbaijani citizens.

Unfortunately, cotton-growing in Azerbaijan is experiencing a downturn these days. There are certain objective and subjective reasons for that. Today's meeting aims to ensure that we conduct an exchange of views on the work done over the past few months. Some speeches will be made here. We will also talk about the plan of actions for the coming years.

Azerbaijan is experiencing a period of rapid development in various directions. When I was first elected as president in 2003, I said that one of the main directions of my work would be the development of regions. Thus, a few months after the presidential election, in early 2004, the first regional development program was adopted. As part of this program, there were plans to create 600,000 jobs in the country over the course of five years. In five years, by 2008, this goal was achieved.

The development of our regions required major investments, because we first had to create a very strong and modern infrastructure in the regions. Unfortunately, the infrastructure created in the regions in the 1970s was out of order – the roads were in poor condition, power lines were run down, some of them were cut out and sold abroad, there was no gas supply at all, there were huge problems related to water supply, and the development of our regions was pretty much out of the question because the key factors contributing to development require the presence of infrastructure.

This was why we began to implement large-scale infrastructure projects in the regions in 2004. Today, all the regions of Azerbaijan are provided with electricity, gas and drinking water. Whereas in 2003 we imported electricity and gas, now we are exporting them. The power plants built in Azerbaijan in recent years not only provide for our own needs but also create export potential. Similarly, in the field of gas supply, Azerbaijan is becoming a very important gas producing and exporting country of the region, and of the world and Europe in the future.

We are addressing the problems associated with rural roads, including Sabirabad District. This year, we have envisaged more than 200 million manats for that. We can say all the highways are already in good condition. The Baku-Sabirabad highway – I know that this road was causing many problems to the people of Sabirabad – has also been overhauled and commissioned. The implementation of infrastructure projects is essential. Besides, we were faced with a very serious problem of unemployment. The issue has also been resolved. Today, the level of unemployment in Azerbaijan is very low. Anyone interested in working can find a job.

One of our key tasks was food security, because in Soviet times we used to import basic food products to Azerbaijan from other republics. For example, we imported poultry meat, beef, milk, sugar and other staple foods from Russia and Ukraine. So we set the task of ensuring food security. Therefore, Azerbaijan was rapidly developing crop production and livestock breeding. Today, we are fully self-sufficient in terms of meat. We provide ourselves with poultry meat by 100 per cent, milk and dairy products by about 80 per cent. I am sure that in the next two to three years we will fully meet our needs and even export dairy products abroad. Therefore, our main goal was related to these issues, and I can say that we have achieved a lot in addressing food security issues.

But unfortunately, other sectors of agriculture were a little bit away from the spotlight. There are objective and subjective reasons for that. It was believed that we live in a market economy, which regulates and establishes everything. But experience shows that this is not exactly the case. Of course, we are committed to the market economy, more than 80 per cent of our economy is formed in the private sector and a lot of support is being paid to the development of private enterprise, including major financial support. In recent years, entrepreneurs have been provided with favorable loans worth more than 1 billion manats for the implementation of various projects. However, the decline in cotton production shows that the state should certainly intervene in these matters. The market economy does not necessarily mean that everything will go as it should. The decline in cotton production is a good example of this. It was therefore decided that since the vast majority of issues related to food production and food security have been resolved and the projects being implemented will bear fruit in the near future, the state should provide more support for agricultural development and have greater involvement in this area. Involvement in the sense that we need to help farmers resolve their problems, restore and develop traditional industries in our country, which, unfortunately, are experiencing a recession.

So I believe that this year has been a watershed in this area. Let me go back to Soviet times again. At that time, there was a division of the national economy. Some republics developed livestock breeding and grain production. In Azerbaijan, as I said, we developed viticulture, cotton, tobacco, tea growing, silkworm breeding and other industries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the communication between republics was disrupted and we were faced with a difficult situation. Today, we are restoring our traditional agricultural sectors, and 2016 should be a turning point in that direction.

There has been extensive development in sericulture this year. Whereas in 2015 only 200 kilograms of raw cocoons were produced, this year the figure has reached 70 tons. As a result of the measures taken, Azerbaijan will harvest 1,000 tons of cocoons in a few years. Look how much income tens of thousands of people will make.

Serious steps have been taken in tobacco growing this year. We intend to double tobacco harvesting.

The measures taken in previous years in connection with viticulture are bearing fruit. However, I still think that it is not up to standard and we should invest more.

In order to increase the production of exportable products, large hazelnut gardens will be set up in different regions. We will create gardens covering an area twice as big as current hazelnut plantations. Places have already been identified. The irrationally used lands will be systematically sown.

We now have large pastures. People engaged in agriculture will know that there are standards as to how many heads of livestock should be raised per hectare. These standards are also violated. A very serious state livestock program is being implemented and tens of thousands of heads of pedigree cattle are imported. We are now switching to the system of artificial insemination, so within three to four years the breed of cattle in Azerbaijan will be completely changed. We will ensure high productivity of both meat and dairy cattle breeds. To this end, we are implementing projects to raise cattle in enclosed areas.

Extensive lands will be included in the turnover in a more rational manner. Therefore, a serious audit is being conducted this year. Some lands have been illegally seized by different people and nothing is being done on these lands. Lease agreements for these lands should be terminated. Many lease agreements have already been terminated and this process continues. There should be rigorous oversight on the part of state bodies, local authorities and the public. I have repeatedly said that there should be strong public oversight in Azerbaijan. If public oversight, i.e. oversight by citizens, is strong, then we will be able to address these challenges even more successfully.

Today, the country’s priority is the production of export-oriented products, and this goal must be met. What is the reason? First, we need to do this to completely use the entire agricultural potential of the country. No patch of land should remain vacant. This will increase productivity and bring an income to even more people. The state will also benefit from that.

Agricultural development is a priority area in Azerbaijan. Today, farmers are exempted from all taxes except for the land tax. Major subsidies are paid. Farmers are provided with funds amounting to 200 million manats in the form of subsidies. Agricultural machinery, fertilizer and fuel are acquired and given to farmers on easy terms. There should also be serious political and social oversight. At the same time, local executive authorities should be more active in this, so that the funds allocated by the state reach their destination and there is a result. We are now analyzing the issues related to subsidies and preparing new proposals.

In addition, as you know, due to the fall in the world oil prices, our revenues have declined. If prices fall three- to fourfold, then so do the revenues. We need to ensure the inflow of currency to Azerbaijan. Therefore, the production of exportable goods is of special importance. Cotton is also an exportable product. It is not by chance that it is called "white gold". This is the first year in the reconstruction of cotton. If we look at the statistics now, we can see a miserable picture. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the great leader and the great dedication of the workers in the 1970-1980s, Azerbaijan harvested a million tons of cotton, while now the figure is only 35,000 tons. In those years cotton was seeded on an area of 300,000 hectares, while last year it was planted only on 18,000 hectares. What does this mean?! This means a destruction of cotton production. This is intolerable and we have to take serious measures. This year we are a little late, but still some good results are already expected this year. Those representing districts here today will talk about this in their speeches. This year, on the whole, cotton was sown on an area of 51,000 hectares. This is about three times more than last year.

Whereas 35,000 tons of cotton were picked last year, this year we should pick at least 100,000 tons. We have even bigger plans for next year. Preparations for next year have already begun. This year, we have spent a lot of money on this. All the necessary measures have been taken in good time. Measures have been taken related to irrigation and electricity. We have imported new cotton harvesters and agricultural machinery of hundreds of denominations. Some of the machinery is still on its way. It will be delivered next month and will continue to be delivered in 2017 as well.

Today, when the world is gripped by an economic recession, our revenues have decreased three- to fourfold. Despite this, we are still spending hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase agricultural machinery and give it to farmers on favorable terms, so that they could earn money and the state could benefit from that.

Development of cotton growing, along with the solution of economic issues, is also a social issue, because, according to my information, about 70,000 people will work on cotton fields of 24 districts this year, which means an increase in employment. Over the past 13 years, we have created 1.3 million jobs in the country. This is a historic achievement. We have taken very serious steps to eliminate unemployment. But this should be an ongoing process. Why? Because unlike some other countries, the demographic situation in Azerbaijan is very positive! And this is due to our economic development. Our population is growing. Whereas in the 1970s our population was about 7 million people, today it is closer to 10 million. In those years, we engaged students in the harvesting of cotton, which is no longer necessary today, because we have sufficient manpower. Therefore, the development of cotton production means new jobs. I believe that next year cotton acreage should be even greater, which will also increase the number of people employed. Hundreds of thousands of people will be attracted to this work in cotton growing districts. This year, we have increased the purchasing price of cotton by 20 per cent. However, we should see if we raise it again. Today, on the way here, I visited the team of the famous cotton-grower and Hero of Socialist Labor, Fatma Huseynova. She had a tea table laid out for me – I want to thank her for that. We shared some pleasant memories. So let’s greet Fatma Huseynova. During the conversation, it was noted that although the purchasing price has been raised, it would be good if it was increased a little more. Of course, it would be good. We also want this, as it would be better for the workers. So I am asking relevant bodies – the Presidential Administration, the ministries of agriculture and economy, the companies dealing with cotton: we must increase the purchasing price as far as possible. First of all, we should do that for the people to make more money. At the same time, we should take additional measures to stimulate the development of cotton growing. This year, in a short time, in a matter of a few months, we used administrative methods and did a great job of quickly resolving the problems associated with the deployment of equipment, irrigation and electricity. But we need to try to engage peasants themselves. In this case, we will get more yield, of course.

Of course, there are also issues related to productivity on our agenda. In contrast to the 1970s, there are more modern technologies in the world today, which we are importing to Azerbaijan in order to increase productivity. Whereas last year the yield per hectare was 20 quintals, I believe that as a result of the measures taken, we will be able to increase this figure to about 30-35, perhaps even to 40 quintals. You know yourselves what this would mean. I want to emphasize the work of the Presidential Administration in this area. Despite time constraints, it was thanks to the efforts of the Presidential Administration and heads of local executive authorities that we have achieved such a turnaround this year. The heads of executive authorities, activists and workers – everybody worked hard.

I want to say again: 2016 will be a crucial year for the development of cotton growing. This is only a beginning, and I am sure that from now on cotton production in Azerbaijan will grow rapidly. As I said, it will bring great benefits to both people and the state.

Let’s now move on to discussions.