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The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia's Destructive Monoculture
The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia's Destructive Monoculture
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Report 93 / Europe & Central Asia

The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia's Destructive Monoculture

The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contributes to political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental degradation.

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Executive Summary

The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contributes to political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental degradation. Without structural reform in the industry, it will be extremely difficult to improve economic development, tackle poverty and social deprivation, and promote political liberalisation in the region. If those states, Western governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) do not do more to encourage a new approach to cotton, the pool of disaffected young men susceptible to extremist ideology will grow with potentially grave consequences for regional stability.

The economics of Central Asian cotton are simple and exploitative. Millions of the rural poor work for little or no reward growing and harvesting the crop. The considerable profits go either to the state or small elites with powerful political ties. Forced and child labour and other abuses are common.

This system can only work in an unreformed economy with little scope for competition, massive state intervention, uncertain or absent land ownership, and very limited rule of law. Given the benefits they enjoy, there is little incentive for powerful vested interests to engage in serious structural economic reform, which could undermine their lucrative business as well as eventually threaten their political power.

This system is only sustainable under conditions of political repression, which can be used to mobilise workers at less than market cost. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the world's most repressive states, with no free elections. Opposition activists and human rights defenders are subject to persecution. The lack of a free media allows many abuses to go unreported. Unelected local governments are usually complicit in abuses, since they have little or no accountability to the population. Cotton producers have an interest in continuing these corrupt and non-democratic regimes.

The industry relies on cheap labour. Schoolchildren are still regularly required to spend up to two months in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan. Despite official denials, child labour is still in use in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Students in all three countries must miss their classes to pick cotton. Little attention is paid to the conditions in which children and students work. Every year some fall ill or die.

Women do much of the hard manual labour in cotton fields, and reap almost none of the benefits. Cash wages are minimal, and often paid late or not at all. In most cotton-producing areas, growers are among the poorest elements in society. Not surprisingly, young men do everything to escape the cotton farms, forming a wave of migrants both to the cities and out of the region.

The environmental costs of the monoculture have been devastating. The depletion of the Aral Sea is the result of intensive irrigation to fuel cotton production. The region around the sea has appalling public health and ecological problems. Even further upstream, increased salinisation and desertification of land have a major impact on the environment. Disputes over water usage cause tension among Central Asian states.

Reforming the cotton sector is not easy. Structural change could encourage the growth of an industry that benefits rural farmers and the state equally but economic and political elites have resisted. Land reform has been blocked in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and has moved too slowly in Tajikistan. Farmers still have no permanent ownership of the lands they work and no real say in the choice of crops they wish to grow or to whom they sell their produce.

Central Asian cotton is traded internationally by major European and U.S. corporations; its production is financed by Western banks, and the final product ends up in well-known clothes outlets in Western countries. But neither the international cotton trading companies nor the clothing manufacturers pay much attention to the conditions in which the cotton is produced. Nor have international organisations or IFIs done much to address the abuses. U.S. and EU subsidy regimes for their own farmers make long-term change more difficult by depressing world prices.

The cotton monoculture is more destructive to Central Asia's future than the tons of heroin that regularly transit the region. Although the international community has invested millions of dollars in counter-narcotics programs, very little has been done to counteract the negative impact of the cotton industry. Changing the business of Central Asian cotton will take time, but a real reform of this sector of the economy would provide more hope for the stability of this strategic region than almost anything else the international community could offer.

Bishkek/Brussels, 28 February 2005

A New Jersey police officer stands guard in front of the Omar Mosque in Paterson, U.S., on 1 November 2017. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP

Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack

An immigrant from Central Asia has admitted to carrying out the 31 October truck attack in New York on behalf of the Islamic State. Sayfullo Saipov left his native Uzbekistan seven years ago and U.S. and Uzbek authorities say he was radicalised in the U.S.

What do we know about the Uzbek links of the New York attacker?

Sayfullo Saipov left Uzbekistan in 2010, aged 21 or 22, and entered the U.S. legally on a Diversity Visa Lottery Program. We cannot say with certainty yet when he was radicalised, but both U.S. and Uzbek authorities say it was in the U.S. Others, including Saipov’s Uzbek wife and another Uzbek man, are being questioned by the FBI. It is not clear whether Saipov had any direct contact with the Islamic State (ISIS) or other Central Asians linked to the group, but ISIS, after some delay, claimed responsibility for the attack on 3 November. There is no evidence of any connection to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a jihadist group that has operated for much of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What do we know about Saipov’s relationship with the broader Uzbek migrant community in the U.S.?

Mirrakhmat Muminov, an ethnic Uzbek religious activist, blogger and human rights activist based in Ohio, told Crisis Group on 1 November that he met Saipov, who is from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, in 2011. Saipov married a fellow Uzbek and had children, but Muminov described him as “a very aggressive, depressive and unstable guy … he couldn’t find a job for a long time, he couldn’t go back to Uzbekistan to see his parents”. Like the U.S. and Uzbek authorities, Muminov argues that whatever motivated him to perpetrate the attacks in New York happened while he was in the U.S. He said that communities of Uzbeks (in 2015 the official number of Uzbek migrants in the U.S. was 55,000, though the real number is widely thought to be much higher) and those of other Central Asians now fear they will become targets of extra scrutiny.

What is the background to ISIS recruitment among Central Asians?

In 2015, Crisis Group estimated that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians fighting in Syria and Iraq. ISIS – unlike, for example, al-Qaeda – has been able to create compelling recruitment material and propaganda for the post-Soviet space in not only Russian but local languages. It has attracted a broad range of people from Central Asia from teenage girls following their boyfriends who were recruited in Russia to one high-ranking U.S. trained Tajik security official.

ISIS has had some success in attracting Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek citizens form the largest contingent of Central Asians in Iraq and Syria (though Uzbekistan also has the largest population in the region). Saipov joins two other Uzbek citizens who are known to be responsible for ISIS-linked terror attacks. Abdulgadir Masharipov carried out the New Year’s Eve attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul and Rakhat Akilov was responsible for the truck attack in Stockholm in April 2017. Turkish authorities also say citizens of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were among those responsible for the attack on Istanbul airport in June 2016, and an ethnic Uzbek originally from Kyrgyzstan carried out an attack on the St. Petersburg metro in April 2017. An Uzbek in the U.S. was found guilty of supporting ISIS in October 2017. In the case of Akilov, the Uzbek government says they warned European security services about him.

Radicalisation, however, does not always happen in the country of origin. Saipov, like the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 (who were ethnic Chechens originally from Kyrgyzstan), appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. This suggests that any well-tailored policy response should focus on a variety of factors that led to this outcome, among them in all likelihood the wide availability of ISIS-inspired materials on the internet. Addressing the accessibility of such materials in a manner that respects the right to free expression has been and will remain a significant challenge for Western governments.

What is likely to happen next in the Saipov case, and what could be done to prevent a recurrence?

The Uzbek authorities say they will cooperate with the U.S. and that they are investigating Saipov’s history. This likely will involve rounding up family and acquaintances still in Uzbekistan for questioning. Although the new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appears committed to reform, Uzbek security services are notorious for their use of torture.

With respect to criminal process inside the U.S., in deciding to try Saipov through civilian rather than military courts, the U.S. government chose a more effective and more legitimate forum.

Those in the U.S. who support restricting immigration in general already are seizing on the fact that Saipov came into the country on a so-called “diversity visa” in order to reinforce their campaign to limit both legal and illegal immigration. That he appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. is unlikely to be persuasive in pushing back against this trend. Yet to restrict immigration in arbitrary fashion would be to misdiagnose the problem, turning foreigners into scapegoats. In particular, Crisis Group in the past has called into question the U.S. administration’s policy of preventing citizens from certain countries travelling to the U.S.

Are there any implications in terms of U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan?

U.S. interests in Uzbekistan currently chiefly are linked to Afghanistan, with which Uzbekistan shares a heavily guarded 137km long border. The country has also been the recipient of U.S. military and technical aid.

It is not clear that the attack in and of itself will lead to refocused U.S. attention on Uzbekistan or Central Asia more broadly, since for now nothing links the attacks to that region beyond Saipov’s nationality. That said, and independently of the attack, there is good reason for the U.S. to pay more attention to the need for political reform and socio-economic development as much as counter-terrorism. An opportunity exists. Uzbekistan has been opening up under President Mirziyoyev, who took office in September 2017 after the death of President Islam Karimov, whose rule was characterised by violent political and religious repression. The country appears to be seeking to embark on important reforms, although that inevitably will take time and require international support.

Some early signs are encouraging. This year the government removed some 16,000 people from a long-standing list of 17,000 alleged extremists, a categorisation that previously had served as a convenient way to target Karimov’s political opponents. Mirziyoyev also has pledged support for Uzbek migrants, typically to Russia, in contrast to his predecessor’s description of them as “lazy”.

Finally, Mirziyoyev has broken with Uzbekistan’s formerly isolationist foreign policy and is seeking to mend relations with Central Asian neighbours, including Turkey as well as troubled states such as Tajikistan. This potentially could present an opportunity to resolve deep-seated disagreements among regional states, including competition over water resources and border demarcation.