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

Silk Farmers Hang On By a Thread

Uzbekistan's government coerces farmers into keeping silkworms - and then forgets to pay them.
By Ulugbek Haidarov

Uzbek farmers say they are being coerced into working for the country's silk industry even though they lose money by doing so.


Making silk is an important industry for Uzbekistan, the world's third largest producer after China and India, and on paper at least the government has taken steps to encourage people to breed silkworms. In April last year, it instructed local banks to extend credit lines to the state monopoly firms which buy and process the silk thread so that they could in turn pay the producers. In 1999, it increased the official price at which it buys raw silk.


The local media - almost entirely controlled by the state - is happy to splash upbeat news of the official policy of expanding production.


But little is said in public about the poverty that faces farmers when they don't get paid.


This year, farmers in Uzbekistan have been set a production target of 20,000 tonnes of silk cocoons. They have little option but to try to achieve this, even though payment seems a long way off since they have not received last year's money yet.


Some have finally had enough and are beginning to rebel. One farmer, Mamir Azimov, from Jizak, an arid region in central Uzbekistan, ran into trouble with the authorities when he declined to join in the state-sponsored industry this year.


He recounted how he was called in by the head of the local district authority, Kamil Kobilov, who read out a threatening letter said to have come from the Uzbek president's office.


"The letter said that anyone who refuses to grow cocoons will have to write an letter of explanation to President Islam Karimov," Azimov told IWPR.


Coercion appears to be state policy, at least as it is interpreted on the ground. Jizak regional governor Ubaidulla Yamonkulov has told farmers that if they refuse to sign a contract with the state, their land will be confiscated.


"We will take land from those farmers who will not carry out the state order. We would rather give this land to some other person who is prepared to work and meet our demands," Yamonkulov told a regional council meeting.


Such warnings appear to be working, and seven thousand farmers in Jizak have signed agreements to produce silk. This only came after the head of the local farming association, Abdunabi Abdurahmonov, was detained by the authorities - allegedly because he had failed to do enough to encourage farmers to comply.


Producing raw silk is a painstaking and difficult job. Farmers have to care for the worms and ensure a constant supply of the mulberry leaves they live on. And mulberry trees are in short supply in this part of Uzbekistan.


One 20-gramme box of silkworm larvae will quickly turn into enough caterpillars to occupy three large rooms in the typical Uzbek rural home, so the farmer and his family often have to move out and live in the yard. Production on this scale should result in about 100 kilograms of silk cocoons which - if classed as the best quality - will earn the farmer 75 US dollars. That income is for a month's work - the cycle from larva to finished cocoon.


Yet even that small amount of money is not always forthcoming. The head of the Pilla (Cocoon) firm, Ilham Umurzakov, reports that the state still owes Jizak farmers some 63,000 dollars for last year's output. An employee at one of the banks responsible for handling the payments told IWPR that the government had instructed them to delay paying out the money.


Local farmers are indignant at what they see as exploitation of their position - they are forced to take part and to sell to a state-controlled market which fixes prices to suit itself, and after all that, the government reneges on payment.


Buvihol Bolbekova is a veteran silk producer who has yet to receive anything for last year's work.


"At the regional administration they ended up telling me that the money I earned was a generous gift to the state," she told IWPR angrily.


"Why do I have to put up with it? It's my labour, and that of my children!"


IWPR telephoned the state-owned Pilla Holding company, which is the monopoly buyer of raw silk from the farmers, to ask about the payment problem, but got no response.


Ulugbek Haidarov is an IWPR contributor in Jizak. Jamshid Karimov is an independent journalist in Jizak.

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