Uzbekistan: Exhausting Silkworm Cocoon Harvest Opens
The harvest for Uzbekistan’s perhaps most famous export, silkworm cocoons, has begun in earnest and with the usual concern for rights violations that the ancient industry brings with it.
Silkworm breeders gather vast amounts of cocoons every year — as much 26,000 tons in 2015, according to official figures. That puts Uzbekistan in third place in global silkworm cocoon production, behind China and India.
Some aspects of the harvest season are reported upon in earnest by state media. UzA news agency carried a report from one of the main sources of the commodity, in the Bukhara region.
“Silkworm breeders in the Jondor district of Bukhara region plan to harvest 419 tons of this valuable material,” UzA reported on May 24.
The main official in charge of a raw silk gathering facility, Naim Sodikov, said supply agreements have been signed with 290 farming enterprises.
But as the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights revealed in a recent report on the silk industry in Uzbekistan, the business relies on forced labor that often deprives farmers of deserved levels of income.
“The central government establishes cocoon production policy, prices, and annual silk production targets, and requires regional- and district-level officials to ensure targets are met. Local officials use coercion, including threatening farmers that they will lose their land, to force farmers and public-sector institutions to fulfill annual silk quotas,” the report stated. “Farmers, in turn, oblige family members, including children, or pay local laborers to assist in the cultivation of silkworm cocoons to meet required production quotas and avoid penalties.”
The effort of nurturing and then harvesting the cocoons, which lasts from the end of April through May, is centered around homesteads in rural communities.
Muharram’s family this year received five crates and the government’s expectation is that each should be filled with 60 kilograms of cocoons.
Muharram has been working with raw silk for around 50 years, but it never gets any easier.
“It is hard work. A month’s care for silkworm cocoons consumes a year’s worth of energy. Room temperature should be at 27-28 degrees Celsius. Every day, three to four times daily, they have to be fed mulberry leaves. Sometimes, if they eat more, you have to get up 2-3 a.m. to feed them again,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
The silkworms get through 60 bundles of mulberry leaves every day. The silkworm increases in weight 10,000 times over from when it is hatched through to spinning stage, so the amount of sustenance it requires is accordingly huge.
Unlike in other more technologically advanced silk-producing countries, the process in Uzbekistan is crude and consequently exhausting. Mulberry leaves are collected by hand instead of the machines used in places like South Korea and Japan.
Unprocessed silk is a valuable source of hard currency, so an estimated 70 percent of the crop is said to be exported. But the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights has questioned the transparency of the industry.
“Little information about export volumes, the export price, the total income from silk cocoon sales, and how revenues are spent is publicly available,” the group said in its report. “The silk production system is structured such that farmers and public organizations take on the majority of the costs and burden of production and receive little, if anything, in return. Uzbekistan exports the majority of silk produced, providing the government with a key source of hard currency, but profits are not returned to producers.”
What remains inside the country is processed by the local textile industry.
Silkworm cultivation has been the object of much attention from the government and a presidential decree was adopted in 2006 on boosting the fortunes of the ancient industry. Associations of silkworm breeders and silk manufacturers were created in 2012 to promote the sector. Not much of this appears to have been of much help to the ultimate producers, however.