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Uzbek Farmers Sue Mayors

Land seizures and harassment claims prompt legal action from farmers and human rights association.
By IWPR Central Asia

Human rights activists in the Jizzakh region are attempting to take two of its local administration heads to court after land was confiscated from hundreds of farmers.

Officials say that as many as 600 farms have been confiscated across the entire Jizzakh region since November 2004, apparently because managers had failed to meet government quotas.

The case highlights the paradoxical nature of Uzbekistan’s agricultural system, where private farmers are allowed to operate but remain in thrall to the state because they can only lease, not buy, government-owned lands. They are still required to follow Soviet-style rules, growing set amounts of cotton or wheat which they must sell at a fixed price to state-monopoly firms.

The final straw appears to have been an incident on February 1, when around a hundred farmers whose land had been confiscated held a protest outside local government headquarters in the Dustlik district.

Activists claim that the authorities hired a mob of “bystanders” to attack the farmers.

“After the beatings, my brothers and I tried to get medical attention, but on the orders of the authorities we were turned away everywhere,” said protest organiser Bobokul Mamaev. “My younger brother, who had an operation last year, has yet to recover.”

While there have been allegations of official harassment for some time, the situation has markedly deteriorated in recent weeks, leading to the unprecedented legal action brought by farmers in concert with human rights activists.

Mayors Uskan Azimov of the Zarbdar district and Mahmud Kholbutaev of Dustlik are named in the lawsuit brought by the Jizzakh Human Rights Association, which cites both the farm seizures and subsequent claims of harassment.

Association head Muhiddin Kurbonov alleges that local government officials are responsible for “the illegal forced liquidation of several dozen farms in the region, and for organising beatings and persecution of farmers” who had tried to protest against the actions of the authorities. No date has yet been set for the court hearing.

Both local administrations have flatly denied these allegations, and claim that the land in question was legally taken from farmers who had been running unproductive and debt-ridden operations.

Kholbutaev told IWPR that his administration had liquidated nearly a hundred farms in the Dustlik district, as they had built up debts of more than a million US dollars over three years and had been declared bankrupt.

“These farms were not capable of fulfilling the state order or paying their debts, so we took this decision,” he said.

Dismissing allegations that his administration was involved in the beatings of protestors on February 1, Kholbutaev replied, “There was in fact no fight at all.”

Kurbonov points to dozens of statements from farmers who claim that they were forced to give up their land under threat of arrest and possible violence.

Abdumalik Turdiev, head of the Istiklol farm in the Zarbar region, told IWPR that in November, he was among 50 local farmers summoned to the local administration building under police escort.

“Mayor Azimov demanded that everyone present sign statements that they were giving up their land voluntarily. He threatened to put everyone in jail if they didn’t do so,” claimed Turdiev, a father of nine.

“If you count our grandchildren, there are 50 of us and we all worked and lived off our farm,” he said. “But now our land has been taken from us, and we don’t know how we will go on.”

Normukhammad farm head Sanokul Aliboev said that he had refused to sign the statement – but that his land was confiscated anyway.

“It was rubber-stamped at the region’s civil court, which ruled against me even though I was not present in court,” he said.

The Jizzakh liquidations followed a November 2004 presidential decree which appointed a commission to look at ways of reviving Uzbekistan’s agriculture industry, which has been in decline in recent years. The body concluded that one way to achieve an improvement would be close down farms that did not meet the state’s quota.

Abduraim Pardaev, an adviser to the Jizzakh regional authority, to which both the Dustlik and Zarbdar districts are subordinate, told IWPR that the farm businesses had been liquidated for “valid reasons”, as the farmers had not met their targets for cotton and grain deliveries under the “state order” system.

Analysts say the core problem is the disjointed transition from Soviet-era collective farms to private land management. Collective farms no longer operate in Uzbekistan, but the constraints placed on farmers remain, and the price of failure high.

Farmers report difficulties in renting land from state-controlled agricultural bodies, and even when this process is completed, they face further problems. Although they are private entities, the authorities still treat them as though they were working on a state-controlled farm and continue to dictate what crops they must grow, who to sell them to and at what price – usually far below market value.

Uzbekistan is a major player on the world cotton market as one of the top five producers, and even in a bad year the government is collecting well over a billion US dollars from exports of the commodity. However, little of this revenue seeps back to the producers, as international prices are not reflected in the rate the government is prepared to pay them.

As production is so controlled and prices are so low, the farmers find it near to impossible to recoup the money they spend on seeds, equipment and irrigation. Jizzakh farmers complain that they cannot fulfil the state quota because vital deliveries of fertiliser and equipment – which the local authorities are supposed to provide - are routinely late.

Deteriorating soil conditions lead to poor harvests, while the state plan takes no account of climatic variability.

Many say the targets set in the “state order” are unreasonably high, and argue that they cannot hope to make a profit on the crops the state compels them to sow.

This leads many into a spiral of debt and low productivity which is difficult to break out of.

Professor Sunnatillo Sulaimonov, an agriculture specialist, told IWPR that farmers are in a no-win situation.

“The entire agrarian system is organised in such a way that a farmer who sells cotton to the state at low prices – around 17 US cents per kilogram - will still remain in debt to the state, as his income does not cover his production costs,” he said. “The prices of farm equipment, maintenance and mineral fertilisers have increased several times over the past few years, while the purchase prices of cotton have hardly risen at all.

“In these conditions, it is impossible not to be a debtor.”

Malik Boboev is an IWPR correspondent in Tashkent.

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