Agriculture under fire in eastern Ukraine

Agriculture under fire in eastern Ukraine

In the middle of one of these fields of black earth which make the wealth of Ukraine, the combine harvester lies motionless, about twenty kilometers from the front line. A week ago, she hit a mine.

A front wheel was torn off, the machine’s giant cutter bar hanging miserably beside the smoldering remains of the driver’s cab.

The latter, Pavlo Koudimov, was hospitalized with serious burns. “Farming has always been difficult, but it’s even more difficult now,” he complains.

On August 1, after months of negotiations, a first freighter loaded with Ukrainian cereals left Odessa (south), ending the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea which posed a risk of food crisis in many countries.

This departure – about fifteen other boats have since left from three Ukrainian ports – was also a relief for the agricultural sector in Ukraine, one of the main breadbaskets on the planet: before that, operators were forced to store their grain or sell it at a loss.

But for farmers in Donbass, the basin in eastern Ukraine on which Russian troops have focused their assault for four months, the threat continues.

Last year, Sergei Lubarsky was paid up to eight hryvnia (0.21 euros) per kilo of wheat sold. Since the beginning of the war, he can only get three hryvnia from it, and even then if he manages to transport it to the regional center of Kramatorsk.

In Raï-Aleksandrovka, his village on the front line, he only gets 1.80 hryvnia from traders because “the drivers are afraid to come here”.

Edouard Stoukalo, 46, farms 150 hectares on the outskirts of the city of Sloviansk. Thirty hectares of wheat have already “completely burned” because, according to him, of artillery fire.

And he obviously struggles to convince his workers to continue to participate in the harvest. “Farmers like us will go bankrupt. Nobody wants to go there, everyone is afraid of the incoming missiles”, he regrets.

“We were also risking our lives when we planted in April and May,” he adds: “Cluster bombs hit our fields. The bombs exploded 100 or 200 meters from us.”

– “No other work” –

But some, pushed by the economic crisis, continue to go to the fields.

“There is no other work here,” sighs Svitlana Gaponova, 57, as she harvests eggplants in a field outside the beleaguered town of Soledar.

“It’s scary but it’s distracting,” she adds to the sound of explosions being heard in the distance.

In this impoverished region of Ukraine, subsistence agriculture is also firmly rooted. At the Sunday market, some sell the few products they manage to grow on their personal plots.

“People are constantly working on it,” said Volodymyr Rybalkin, head of the military administration of the Svyatogirsk district, located on the front line. According to him, this is one of the reasons why so many residents are reluctant to leave.

“We are constantly explaining to people what is happening and trying to motivate them to evacuate to safer cities,” he continues.

If they weigh nothing on the global trade balance, these small individual plots are not exempt from danger. In the early hours of Monday morning, gunfire ripped through the land behind the house of Lyubov Kanicheva, 57, on the outskirts of the major industrial center of Kramatorsk.

The vines have been covered in dust, the tomatoes are crushed in the earth and a dozen hives have been broken, so much so that the buzzing of the bees merges with the howl of the aerial alert sirens.

“This garden was just to meet our needs, but we managed to grow a lot of things”, she laments: “There is nothing left of it”.


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