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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
Starting Anew in Uzbekistan
Starting Anew in Uzbekistan
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

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Starting Anew in Uzbekistan

Originally published in The Interpreter

Outside powers may be relieved that the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's president since 1991, has been followed by a seemingly smooth, orderly transition, rather than creating a political vacuum filled by competing contenders.

Yet political transitions of any kind are a scarce commodity in Central Asia. The changing of the guard in Uzbekistan's stagnant autocracy provides a rare chance for international actors to recalibrate their relations with Tashkent. At this sensitive time, the outside world needs to make incremental adjustments to counter the widely expected return to the status quo, and to steer a cautious path towards change Uzbekistan's fossilised domestic and foreign policies.

The only other transfer of power in Central Asia's authoritarian states (outside of Kyrgyzstan, which has followed a more pluralistic trajectory) has been in neighbouring Turkmenistan, with a ruling party-run transition in 2007 that has changed nothing in the country's oppressive authoritarianism.

In Uzbekistan, in true Soviet style, the will of Karimov was signified soon after his 2 September death by the selection of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the funeral organiser. As one well-placed Uzbek remarked: 'Whoever buries rules next'.

Barely a week passed until Mirziyoyev was selected as interim president. Mirziyoyev's 8 September address to the nation signalled the continuation of the status quo over any significant change in the country's trajectory. Mirziyoyev is now gearing up to assume full presidential power in the upcoming December election, which will likely be a ceremonial confirmation of his uncontested position.

Karimov's parting gift to Mirziyoyev was a highly authoritarian state, the most visible traits of which were forced labour, mass arrests, widespread repression and torture. Mirziyoyev's strong position within the political elite, buttressed by the support of senior Uzbek clansmen and his close ties to the Russian oligarchy, make it unlikely that he will spurn his inheritance.

The ruling elite will sooner or later need to address the pressure points that are causing grievances among the population.

In a country that has outlawed the study of political science, it is perhaps unsurprising that liberal democracy has not flourished in 25 years of independence. Indeed, hundreds of thousands are forced to spend three months every Autumn picking cotton, the country's main agricultural product.

But it is not just exploitation and the lack of accountable governance that troubles Uzbekistan. The wider population is in desperate need of effective economic and social policies to improve standards of living. Pensioners and public sector workers wait months for pensions and salaries. Over the years, as many as 1.75 million Uzbeks have felt no other choice but to uproot themselves and find work in Russia. Informers for the state security apparatus are omnipresent. People live in fear that they may be overheard. Discontent finds no expression through civil society or in the political space.

But the ruling elite will sooner or later need to address the pressure points that are causing grievances among the population. Now is the chance to signal change, by seeking to address socio-economic issues, releasing political prisoners and taking measures to curb pervasive corruption within the police and judicial system.

Like all Central Asia's five post-Soviet states, Uzbekistan has been plagued by poorly developed institutions, authoritarian rule and a stunted struggle for real democracy. In recent years, Washington and its European partners have flirted with sanctions to punish human rights abuses. But at the same time, they have baulked at alienating a core Central Asian power whose shared border with Afghanistan has been as a backdoor into the fight against the Taliban.

The U.S. needs a new policy that links defence and security cooperation to better governance, since the old blank slate neither won Tashkent's friendship nor advanced the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan. In 2015 Uzbekistan received 300 armoured vehicles from US contingency stocks in Afghanistan, but in August of that year, Tashkent declined to join the Americans' anti-Islamic State coalition. At the same time, the security apparatus becomes more intransigent with every boost to its arsenal.

Since Uzbekistan's main partners in Russia and China have little interest in seeing an injection of liberalisation into the region, it is up to the U.S. and the EU to play a more active role.

Tensions over energy and water with neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan jeopardise the whole region's security. The new rulers in Tashkent should rethink the old policy of mono-agriculture, which makes them not just dependent on a cotton industry that uses outdated irrigation and aging infrastructure, but also on a predictable flow of water from its mountainous neighbours. Occasional skirmishes over water sources show that the region must find a better basis for cooperation than threats of upstream dams and even war.

Since Uzbekistan's main partners in Russia and China have little interest in seeing an injection of liberalisation into the region, it is up to the U.S. and the EU to play a more active role. For example, their ability to offer technical improvements in the farming, energy and water sectors can help decrease Uzbekistan's reliance on and frictions with neighbours. But there should be a quid pro quo that Tashkent opens up too.

Any such Western diplomatic initiative, however, should be quietly conceived and executed. Heavy-handed designation of Uzbekistan as either all strategic friend or human rights foe has had its day, and the new president should be given an opportunity to move forward.


Project Director, Central Asia
Program Director, Europe & Central Asia