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

Uzbek Cotton Smugglers Targeted

Poverty and high demand from neighbouring republics are prompting many farmers to break the law.
By Zakirjon Ibrahimov

The Uzbek government has introduced a number of tough measures to stop impoverished farmers selling the cotton they produce in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan.


Earlier this month, President Islam Karimov issued an order requiring strict measures to stop the exports, which are illegal as cotton is regarded as a strategic commodity for the state. The new rules were drawn up on October 12 - only a day after two would-be cotton smugglers were shot dead by Uzbek border guards on the Kyrgyz frontier.


The governors of all Uzbekistan's regions were warned that they would be held personally responsible for any thefts or illegal exports of cotton - nicknamed "white gold" because of its high value.


In the Andijan region - close to the Kyrgyz border - more than 270 additional police checkpoints have been set up to prevent any thefts, and police officers are also staking out country roads to stop vehicles suspected of making off with the crop. The authorities have also tightened controls at the border with Kyrgyzstan.


Uzbekistan is the world's fifth largest cotton producer, and it accounts for half the country's foreign-currency earnings. The government has thus made it a priority to minimise losses.


Although President Karimov has warned that any farmers or officials attempting to stockpile or smuggle the crop out of the country will face fines and criminal charges, the extreme poverty gripping the former Soviet republic is pushing many to ignore these warnings.


Uzbek farmers are forced to sign contracts with state-owned cotton buyers and have to sell their produce to the state for a price 20 times lower than what is paid in neighbouring countries. Sometimes they do not get paid for months on end, or are forced to accept containers of low-grade vegetable oil made from cotton seed instead.


One woman from the Marhamat district of Andijan told IWPR that the authorities were more likely to pay for the recent crop in kind rather than cash.


Unable to make a profit, farmers cannot afford to improve their production methods, and are therefore caught in a dependency relationship with the state.


Their lives have been made even worse by this year's poor weather conditions, which meant that the cotton had to be replanted three or four times, and was then blighted by insects.


Poverty, combined with the high demand for the crop in the more open and better-paying Kyrgyz and Kazak markets, makes the temptation irresistible for many Uzbek farmers.


A schoolteacher in the Marhamat district, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR, "The workers are hungry - their miserable wages don't cover even the most basic needs. Because of this hopeless situation, young and old alike are forced to sell cotton across the border."


A pattern has emerged where farmers use intermediaries who buy their cotton for 200 sums per kilogram - about 20 US cents - and then sell it on to Kyrgyz buyers for more than twice as much.


According to one Uzbek go-between called Shavkat, the stolen cotton is taken across the border on out-of-the-way paths. The soldiers who control these frontier areas often turn a blind eye as they get a kickback.


Analysts believe that this situation has come about because of the lack of any real reform in Uzbekistan's agricultural sector, which is still run along Soviet lines. The state sets the price it pays producers and then keeps the substantial earnings it gets from selling on the world market.


Kamil Ashurov, a human rights activist from Samarkand, said the centrally planned economy has left agricultural workers completely dependent on the state.


He said the Uzbek government is in control of all agricultural production, dictating what farmers are allowed to plant, and setting high quotas with low purchase prices.


"People are no longer willing to accept this situation and have decided to take matters into their own hands. Hence the increase in thefts," he said.


Zakirjon Ibrahimov is an IWPR contributor in Andijan. Ulughbek Haidarov is an IWPR contributor in Jizak.