Uzbekistan is cutting back on its cotton cultivation to make way for fruit and vegetable fields. While that happens, however, the custom of forcing state workers to pick cotton is proving hard to abandon.
The area of cotton fields is being cut by 400 square kilometers this year, and another even more drastic cut of 1,000 square kilometers is planned for 2018, according to the Agriculture and Water Management Ministry.
That will take a significant bite out of the 13,000 square kilometers now dedicated to cotton.
The agenda of reducing cotton cultivations, which is running from this year to 2022, has been adopted at the initiative of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The plan is for those fields to make way for growing fruit and berries. Another indirect goal is to stabilize prices for fresh groceries on the domestic market. Farmers are being given tax breaks to encourage them to diversify their crops.
On the 30,000 square kilometers or so reserved for agriculture purposes, of the land that is not for cotton, 11,500 square kilometers is used to grow wheat, while the rest is for fruit and vegetables.
Ferghana Valley farmer Mahamadsodyk Sodikov said that the return on cotton is indeed very low, although it has improved.
“This year the purchase price of cotton rose by almost 40 percent. That means for every ton of cotton grown I can get 2 million sum ($250),” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Sodikov said that this year farmers are paying pickers around $0.05 per kilo, up from around $0.03 last year.
The main problem come harvest time is the sheer amount of manpower required. The industry has as a result long relied heavily on forced labor, often consisting of medical workers and teachers. In the past, children were also coerced into the task, although that practice does seem to have waned.
Back in 2013, when Mirziyoyev was still prime minister, he vowed that by 2016, around four-fifths of the country’s cotton crop would be collected by machines. It was a promise made in vain, and mechanical harvesters remain a rare sight.
As the head of the Uzbek Agrarian Industrial Holding, Nodir Otazhonov, told the Sputnik news agency, the fully mechanized gathering of cotton in the country would require 10,000 combine harvesters. There are only around one thousand such pieces of equipment currently available — a catastrophic drop-off from Soviet times.
Sodikov said that full mechanization would be impossible in any case, since the variety of cotton that Uzbekistan grows does not lend itself to that type of harvesting.
And so this year, as documented by monitors from the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, public sector workers all over the country have yet again been press-ganged into the task. The harvest began in earnest earlier this month.
The rights group said in an update report on September 12 that workers are being required to sign letters claiming to be taking part in harvests of their own free will.
“Information about such confirmative letters of 'voluntary participation' was received from the Syrdarya, Jizzak, Andijan regions and the Republic of Karakalpakstan,” the group said.
There are also expectations that university students will, as is customary, be made to take part.
Still, even on this vexed issue, there are some signs of improvement. The heads of numerous regions pledged not to allow any doctors or teachers to get involved in the cotton-gathering, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights reported.
But progress is proving all too slow for those directly involved in the harvests against their will.