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

Uzbekistan’s Fragile Rural Idyll

The countryside may be beautiful, but its communities face an uncertain future.
By IWPR Central Asia
  • Mountains outside Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Mountains outside Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • A farm outside Tashkent, Uzbekistan. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    A farm outside Tashkent, Uzbekistan. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Most Uzbeks live in rural areas where farming is central to everyday life. A quarter of the entire labour force works in agriculture. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Most Uzbeks live in rural areas where farming is central to everyday life. A quarter of the entire labour force works in agriculture. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Livestock is Uzbekistan’s top agriculture product alongside cotton, vegetables, fruit and grain. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Livestock is Uzbekistan’s top agriculture product alongside cotton, vegetables, fruit and grain. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • A shashlik maker at a regional market outside Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    A shashlik maker at a regional market outside Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Strawberries on sale at a rural market in the Tashkent region. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Strawberries on sale at a rural market in the Tashkent region. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • A flea market in the outskirts of Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    A flea market in the outskirts of Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Bargaining is essential in Samarkand’s bazaars. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Bargaining is essential in Samarkand’s bazaars. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Market sellers enjoy snacks and a cup of tea during a break from work. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Market sellers enjoy snacks and a cup of tea during a break from work. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Kids helping at a family-run butcher shop in Samarkand. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Kids helping at a family-run butcher shop in Samarkand. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Carpet-making in Samarkand. Rugs are usually made of cotton, silk, wool and a plant fibre called kenaf. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Carpet-making in Samarkand. Rugs are usually made of cotton, silk, wool and a plant fibre called kenaf. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Amir Temur Square in Taskent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Amir Temur Square in Taskent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Wrestling games in Samarkand. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Wrestling games in Samarkand. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • The Tashkent region. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    The Tashkent region. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • In the mountains outside Tashkent, beekeeping can be a valuable source of income. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    In the mountains outside Tashkent, beekeeping can be a valuable source of income. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Locals take a dip in a lake outside Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Locals take a dip in a lake outside Tashkent. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Lakes in the Tashkent region provide crucial water supply for agriculture in a country with low rainfall. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Lakes in the Tashkent region provide crucial water supply for agriculture in a country with low rainfall. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Tashkent Orthodox church: around five per cent of the population are Orthodox Christians. Islam is the major religion in secular Uzbekistan. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Tashkent Orthodox church: around five per cent of the population are Orthodox Christians. Islam is the major religion in secular Uzbekistan. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
  • Bukhara, a World UNESCO heritage site and an ancient city with a significant Tajik-speaking population. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)
    Bukhara, a World UNESCO heritage site and an ancient city with a significant Tajik-speaking population. (Photo: Helen Stevenson)

Uzbekistan, with a population of 31.5 million, remains a largely agricultural society. The majority of people live in rural areas and a full quarter of the population work in farming, which is still largely unmechanised.

Farmers in Uzbekistan are notionally private operators but remain beholden to the state, as they hold land on a long lease rather than in outright ownership.

This structure is a legacy from the Soviet era, as are the state-set quotas for cotton and wheat. Farmers have to sell these to monopoly trading enterprises at below-market prices.

However, the specialised farming machinery of the Soviet period has been largely replaced by manual work for planting, weeding, and picking, leaving this a labour-intensive industry.

Apart from farming, villagers engage in small-scale business ventures. These range from running food stalls at a local market, the small-scale production of honey or producing traditional Uzbek clothing such as chopans, the robes worn by men.

Local rates of entreupreneurship remain low, however, and taxes can be punishing for even the smallest producers.

The high disparity in living standards between the impoverished countryside and more affluent cities have meant a steady drift of rural residents to urban areas over the last 15 years or so.

This is an especially attractive option for younger people; more than a quarter of all Uzbeks are under the age of 15, with the birthrate on the rise.

Deteriorating standards of education as well as widespread corruption restrict social mobility inside Uzbekistan, leaving opportunities for villagers limited in cities, too.

High unemployment and low wages also mean that at least two million Uzbeks seek temporary work abroad each year.

This article was produced under an IWPR project called Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.