In September, at the beginning of the cotton harvesting season, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev convened a conference on cotton growing.
At the meeting, held in the city of Sabirabad, in the country’s agricultural heartland, he fondly recalled memories of the 1970s and 1980s, when he would accompany his father, Heydar Aliyev – then the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan – to Sabirabad to meet with cotton growers in the fields. Azerbaijan, Aliyev noted, was at the time producing a million tons of cotton per year, compared with a mere 35,000 tons in 2015.
“Unfortunately, cotton-growing in Azerbaijan is experiencing a downturn these days,” Aliyev told the assembled experts.
But under a new state plan to boost the industry, he promised, “we will return cotton growing its former glory.”
This pursuit of glory comes at a hidden cost: according to farmers, workers, and independent experts, students and state employees are forced into the fields to pick cotton to fulfill production quotas. And the farmers are paid well under market value by firms that have a state monopoly.
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Arzu Geybullayeva is a freelance writer.