Uzbekistan: Cotton Controversy

Workers and ecologists say covering cotton fields with polythene is costly and damaging.

Uzbekistan: Cotton Controversy

Workers and ecologists say covering cotton fields with polythene is costly and damaging.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

A controversial system for growing cotton is coming under increasing criticism from Uzbekistan’s long-suffering farm workers and environmentalists alike.

The industry – which brings in the republic’s main source of hard currency – has been hit in recent years by drought, rainy weather and early frosts leading the authorities to seek to extend an assisted method of crop growing used in the Andijan region, in the eastern Fergana valley.

But the method has been introduced in Andijan, and concerns are being voiced that it will spread across the republic.

Andijan farmer Tahir Rajapov, who has been growing cotton for 17 years, was happy with the old methods and claims that the new way only complicates the process and upsets the workers. “I don’t grow cotton under cover, and my farm annually produces seven tons of raw cotton per hectare,” he told IWPR proudly.

However, the Andijan method is now costing him extra money because he is forced to buy the plastic sheeting even though he doesn’t use it. To have enough cover for even one hectare costs farmers around 60 US dollars.

“I buy the polythene, but I don’t use it, choosing to re-sell it cheaper. I suffer losses this way, but I am afraid to refuse to take it outright, in case I am blacklisted by the authorities,” he said.

Under the method, a tractor spreads a polyethylene cover over every row of the cotton field, and then the planting and tending part of the process is left to the manual workers.

The authorities maintain that this method – which was first introduced in Andijan in the late Nineties - is more efficient than any other. They claim it reduces growing time and the amount of water needed for irrigation, as the plastic cover prevents evaporation.

Abduvahob Asranov, head of the Andijan branch of a national research centre, explained, “Cotton under cover ripens faster, and this allows harvesting to begin 10 to 20 days earlier than with crops sown on open ground.”

Many farmers agree, but claim that the Andijan method’s real value to the authorities lies in its water-saving benefits. As well as damage caused by drought, allegations of official incompetence have been leveled after a series of water shortages in recent years.

Farmer Abdukhalil Ibrahimov, who is growing 14 hectares of cotton under cover in the Khojabad district, said, “The main thing is that this method allows to keep moisture in soil and we can cut the amount of water for irrigation two- or threefold, thanks to the cover. We hope to get a good harvest and collect as much as three tons of cotton per hectare.”

According to the ministry of agriculture and water resources, Uzbekistan, more than 1,362,000 hectares of land will be planted with cotton this year – 320,000 hectares of them under cover.

While the entire Andijan region has switched to the process which now bears its name, the authorities seem determined to make the rest of the republic follow suit, regardless of any concerns raised about potential environmental damage.

Agricultural scientist Kurban Razykov told IWPR that the use of plastic covering seriously damages the environment. “Polyethene remains in the soil and does not decompose and we are ruining our land by stuffing it with tons of this stuff every year,” he said.

However, this was denied by the local administration in Andijan. Bakhtiar Abdullaev, the head of Boz district, told IWPR that he had never heard that it could be damaging for farmers’ health.

But Mamadali Bobokulov of the polythene distribution firm Anduslubpakhta admitted in an interview with IWPR that the synthetic material does damage the soil, complicate farmers’ work and increase their expense.

He explained that the Uzbek finance ministry handles the payment as not all farmers are able to pay for the covers on delivery. Later on, when the harvest is handed over to the government monopoly purchaser, the cost of the plastic is deducted from farmers’ earnings.

Workers who complain of painful, weakening eyes are told to wear sunglasses, but most shrug such advice off. With their meagre wages, which are intermittently paid and even then rarely in cash, few can afford such protection.

Wiping sweat from her forehead with a dusty palm and squinting reddish eyes, Gulsara Kamilova, who works at a farm in the Boz region of southern Andijan, told IWPR that she hadn’t been paid in cash for years, “Recently they paid me for my work by giving me two and a half litres of vegetable oil, but before that we haven’t seen cash in our wages for eight years.”

Kamilova criticised the new system, but said that the authorities were giving the farms no option other than to use polythene.

“Bent over all day, we plant every seed of cotton with our hands – making a perforation in the cover, digging a small hole in the soil, placing several cotton seeds and a spoonful of fertilisers within, and covering it up with earth – row by row, hectare after hectare,” she said.

“It is tolerable until 11 in the morning, but after that it becomes simply unbearable,” she said. “My eyes water and become red, I can’t see anything by the evening. This damn cover will kill me one day – perhaps even before I go blind.”

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