Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Poverty Fuels Uzbek Metal Trade

Profits may be meagre, but for many in the Andijan region gathering scrap metal is the only way to make ends meet.
By an IWPR
In the Boz region of the Fergana Valley, Fazliddin and Musajon, not their real names, gather metal in the 45-degree heat at an abandoned airport once used for crop-dusting cotton fields.



When planes stopped landing there several years ago, it became a repository for unwanted metal from nearby collective farms and factories.



Chronic unemployment and poverty in this part of Uzbekistan’s has driven residents young and old into the scrap metal trade. Almost the entire local population scavenges metal that has been left behind in fields, tractor depots, factories and old buildings. It is then smuggled into Kyrgyzstan and sold on to China and elsewhere in the world.



“We sort the metal we find into rusty and non-rusty and sell it for 10 to 20 sums per kilogramme [about one US cent],” said Fazliddin, aged 10. “Over three months, I gathered more than 300 kilograms of metal and sold it for 3,100 sums [about 2.50 dollars]. I gave this money to my mother so she could buy me shoes and trousers.”



Twelve-year-old Musajon said, “Our friend Batirjon gathered 500 kilogrammes of metal. Batirjon’s mother bought him a suit, shoes, bags and schoolbooks. Now he has everything he needs for school.”



A 60-year-old metal scavenger from the village of Aktep in the Altynkul region says older people who’ve been forced to resort to metal selling have had to swallow a lot of pride.



“In the past we were ashamed to sell unneeded things lying in the corner of the yard. I was a tractor driver, and surplus spare parts from the tractor stayed at home and lay unclaimed. It’s embarrassing to admit that I sold it all for 900 sums,” he said.



Industrial and agricultural enterprises that have fallen on hard times are a valuable source of metal. An abandoned poultry farm that once housed up to 40,000 chickens in the village of Egamberdiabad in the Khajiabad region has been decimated by residents desperate for the few sums their scavenging will bring.



“I worked at this poultry factory for many years,” said 70-year-old Khusanbai “There were 36 buildings on the farm … but [it] doesn’t exist anymore. People have taken away all the metal which was at the farm. Even the metal from the fences vanished over time.”



But its not just disused metal that’s being collected. In the city of Andijan, people steal manhole covers, benches and metal fences from cemeteries to sell to traders.



“My son came home covered in blood. When he was returning from work, he fell into a manhole without a cover,” said Ominakhon Karimova, an Andijan resident. “My friend Odinakhon says that when her husband died, she used her pension to put a fence around his grave at the cemetery, but recently it was stolen.”



Independent analysts say the metal trade took off in the region about five or six years ago. Dilshodbek Tillakhojaev, head of the Andijan Centre of Democratic Initiatives, says that back then people gathered non-ferrous metals like tin, copper and aluminium. But as those ran out, they turned to iron.



The majority of the population of the Fergana Valley are farm workers and most struggle to make a decent living, with some describing the conditions under which they work as close to slavery.



They are forbidden from leaving the farms to which they are assigned and forced to sell their cotton, wheat and other agricultural products to the government at a fraction of their real value.



Meanwhile, the government continues to practice a Soviet-style planned economy, suppressing small business and trade, which places a huge burden on the population and drives unemployment ever higher.



The entrepreneurs who defy government and sell the metal on say that they take it by secret routes into Kyrgyzstan, where the metal trade is also good business. But they told IWPR that there is little profit to be made these days.



“My friends and I buy metal for 10-30 sums per kilogramme, then take it to the border, to the Yorkishlak border post, and from there take it to Kyrgyzstan and sell it,” said this metal trader from the Bulakbashi region, a history teacher who sells metal to supplement his small salary.



“But now our business is dropping off. There is less metal in Andijan than there used to be. Border guards and customs officers ask for a lot of money, and the police have found out about this and demand their own cut. Officers of the criminal investigation department especially ask for a lot of money.”

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