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Planned Inefficiency in Uzbek Cotton Sector

By News Briefing Central Asia

Pressure to meet production quotas is making life unbearable for many farmers in Uzbekistan, and some say they would sell up and emigrate if only they could. 

Although farmers are technically private leaseholders, they continue to be bound by a Soviet-style quota system for cotton, under which they have to grow at least 1.5 tons per hectare or face the consequences.

They have to sell to government-controlled buyers at low prices, and the state then sells the cotton on the international market at a hefty mark-up.

A recent directive from the finance ministry ordered more of the profits to be channelled to farmers. They will now get 50 per cent of the difference between the domestic and export price, which they can use to repay their debts and to buy and service machinery.

The new rules came into force on July 26, but farmers interviewed for this report were sceptical that the increased income would reach them and improve their lives.

“The authorities think up new laws every year. These laws are supposed to help us but they remain no more than pieces of paper,” one farmer said. “Farming used to be prestigious and profitable, but now it’s just risky.”

Saida Qurbonova, a human rights defender from Jizak in central Uzbekistan, says the contracts farmers are required to sign are punitive.

“The unfair terms of the contracts leave farmers at risk of getting into debt, and entirely dependent on local government. Their position is reminiscent of serfdom in Tsarist Russia,” she said.

Pressure to meet unachievable production targets takes a heavy toll. In late April, Komil Kambarov, a 48-year-old farmers from the Payarik district in the Samarkand region, committed suicide after 12 years in which he had made no profit once he had fulfilled the cotton quota demanded by the state.

When Qurbonova met him a few days before his death, he told her he saw little point in continuing to do backbreaking work for zero gain.

In September 2011, Ismoil Turanazarov, a 50-year-old from Muzrabad district, close to the Afghan border, left a suicide note saying he was unable to meet his quota because the local authorities had not provided the machinery and fuel they were supposed to.

Turanazarov spent time locked up in a police cell for the “crime” of failing to grow enough cotton. He hanged himself shortly after his release.

Many farmers would like to throw in the towel and join the steady exodus of Uzbeks looking for work in Russia.

To do that, however, they have to annul their land lease, and local authorities make that extremely difficult. At the very least, the farmer has to find someone else willing to take over the land.

One man described attending a meeting convened by the local government chief, who told farmers, “Each of you owes at least 100 million soms [50,000 US dollars] to your suppliers. If you want to abandon your land, go ahead – a court arrest warrant will ensure no one runs away. If anyone does abscond, his family will be stripped of its home and property. Everything will be auctioned off.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing CentralAsia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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