Knowing things' origin: on the importance of home grown food for people's livelihoods in a small town in South-eastern Kazakhstan
(University of Zurich)
In this paper I will present some preliminary findings of my PhD research, which looks at different economic activities in South-eastern Kazakhstan, particularly subsistence practices such as gardening and dacha cultivation through an ethnographic lens. Although I conceive of these practices as an important part of strategies of individuals and households to complement their - in many cases unstable - cash incomes, I will equally highlight aspects which go beyond their narrow economic value.
Gardens and dachas are legendary sites, where a wide range of different activities take place, ethnic and other identities are negotiated and around which local and translocal discourses crystallize. They are sites where people spend time with relatives and friends, show off their physical capacity despite advanced age and obtain presents and barter items, above all the widely cherished local apple variety. On the level of discourse, the practice of producing food on small, private plots is framed by certain people as a guarantee for access to natural and healthy food, which is contrasted with products gained from local large-scale farming and with import products from nearby China, when conditions of production are impenetrable to many people and somehow frightening. Against this background, engaging in or refraining from gardening or dacha work can tell something about a person's or a social group's attitude towards broader economic and other social changes, for instance agricultural and trade liberalization, which are gathering speed.
In this paper, I will talk about some of these aspects of the local subsistence food production and try to locate them within the town's trajectory from a flourishing so-called single industry town during Soviet times to a place of hardship in the 1990's and early 2000's to an unknown future seen with both hope and anxiety by local people.
Economic and social transformations in Kazakstan: The case of Zheti-Suw