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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
Nigeria: Livestock reform is key to solving farmer-herder conflict
Nigeria: Livestock reform is key to solving farmer-herder conflict
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 / Africa

Nigeria: Livestock reform is key to solving farmer-herder conflict

Originally published in The Africa Report

Land disputes between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers occurred sporadically in Nigeria’s past, and relations between the two groups were largely amicable.

However, in recent years, violence between herders and farmers has alarmingly grown, spreading from the north to the central and southern states.

Violence between the two groups has claimed more lives than the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency in the north-east, disrupting rural communities and threatening Nigeria’s stability and food security.

The combination of environmental degradation and violence (attributable to climate change, high population growth, Boko Haram insurgency and armed criminal activity such as cattle rustling) has pushed herders from the north of the country southward in search of pasture and water, resulting in almost daily clashes with farming communities. The intensity of the violence varies from region to region, but so far, Nigeria’s north-west and north-central zones have been hit hardest.

Nigerian authorities responded by deploying security forces to the affected areas but later realised that a military response was insufficient to deal with the main cause of herder-farmer conflict: competition over land and water.

In 2019, following a surge in violent incidents the previous year, they adopted an ambitious, 10-year National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) that aims to alter these deadly patterns.

In a nutshell, the plan encourages pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems. By the end of 2028, authorities expect to have at least 119 ranches operating across several states, with the hope that more mechanised forms of livestock production will bolster the sector’s productivity.

Abuja projects that the planned establishment of ranches, alongside the resuscitation of long-neglected public grazing reserves, will create over two million jobs, mostly in the meat, dairy processing and marketing chains.

The federal government has committed to funding 80% of proposals submitted by participating states, while state governments and private investors are to provide the remaining 20%. Donors are also prepared to help.

The new plan was not Nigeria’s first attempt at developing a strategy to reduce competition for resources among herders and farmers, but it is the country’s most comprehensive livestock reform bid to date.

The new plan was not Nigeria’s first attempt at developing a strategy to reduce competition for resources among herders and farmers, but it is the country’s most comprehensive livestock reform bid to date. Many state governments, especially in the north, welcome the move with enthusiasm, and some have already demarcated grazing reserves or applied for funding from the federal government to set up ranches.

Misperceptions and misgivings

However, implementation has been slow. Two years after the launch of the NLTP, the first ranch is yet to be put up. A major obstacle is widespread distrust of the plan among herders and farmers.

Doubtful of the viability of ranches and grazing reserves, many herders are lukewarm about supporting the plan.

Doubtful of the viability of ranches and grazing reserves, many herders are lukewarm about supporting the plan. Leaders of some herders’ groups complain that 10 years is too short for pastoralists to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, which will have far-reaching cultural and social changes from nomadic communities. They also have legitimate doubts about sufficiency of the pasture that is to be made available in grazing reserves.

Additionally, farmers worry that they may be forced to hand over their land to livestock producers. Others are concerned that the reforms will unduly favour the nomadic Fulani community – fears partly attributable to the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is a Fulani.

Lack of funding (compounded by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic) as well as a dearth of technical experts and competent ranching staff has further thwarted progress.

Meeting the challenge

Nigerian authorities should work with donors and private sector partners to urgently address these and other challenges. Despite the government’s acknowledgement of the need for long-term solutions to promote peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers, only preliminary steps have been taken to implement the NLTP.

Abuja and supportive state governments should display stronger political backing for the new plan, improve public communication and win the support of herders and farmers by assuaging their concerns and dispelling misperceptions about NLTP’s purpose.

Furthermore, federal and state governments should engage with donors and investors to ease funding shortfalls. They should also increase efforts to build up expertise and train people on how to manage ranches and grazing reserves.

Reducing criminal violence, especially in the north-west and north-central zones, should be an urgent priority for the government.

A major concern is the proliferation of deadly criminal gangs and other armed groups that are cutting off access to grazing reserves and scaring away potential investors. Reducing criminal violence, especially in the north-west and north-central zones, should be an urgent priority for the government.

Authorities will also need to address two striking gaps. First, it does not mention how Nigeria intends to deal with foreign transhumant migrants or cattle herders from neighbouring countries who move their herds across borders as seasons change. Second, it does not adequately consider the potential impact of climate change on the livestock sector and ranching.

Less than two years from now, Nigeria will hold general elections: Buhari and many state governors are ineligible to compete, having served the maximum number of terms.

If the plan is to survive the change of government, the Buhari administration must deliver concrete, visible results that can win over both herders and farmers, such as new ranches or functional grazing reserves.

They should accommodate this effort, and partners should support them by offering resources to help them succeed. The plan is far from perfect, but it offers the best chance to modernise Nigeria’s inefficient livestock sector and quell the herder-farmer conflict that undermines the stability of Africa’s most populous country.

Contributors

Interim Vice President & Program Director, Africa
EroComfort
Senior Adviser, Nigeria
NnamdiObasi