Uzbekistan: Land Confiscations Anger Farmers

Farmers lose their livelihoods in government drive to counter drought and a shortage of arable ground.

Uzbekistan: Land Confiscations Anger Farmers

Farmers lose their livelihoods in government drive to counter drought and a shortage of arable ground.

The Goyib Toshmatov collective farm in Uzbekistan's Andijan province used to be a thriving business with a fine yield of rice. Seventy-year-old Gofir Ummatov and his colleagues spent years cultivating their land - but then government took it away to grow cotton.

"Once our work was done and the land was ready, the local administration seized it and sowed cotton. They promised to give us other plots in compensation but this hasn't happened," Ummatov told IWPR.

Due to a severe shortage of arable land, Uzbek farmers are no longer allowed to grow the crops of their choice. Andijan is one of the worst-affected areas, with many plots being confiscated by the government.

Thousands of farmers have been now been deprived of their sole source of subsistence - the land they till from morning to night.

According to collective farm chairman Toir Mirzakhakimov, the authorities believe that rice is no longer a viable crop, as it consumes too much water. "This region has been stricken by a severe drought for two years, so the government forbade farmers to continue sowing rice."

The farmers, however, argue that they have been forbidden to cultivate any crops, not only rice.

"We know water is in short supply so we had plans to sow other things like, for instance. However, the farm told us not to sow anything - not even those crops that require little water," said Ummatov.

Uzbekistan's agricultural ministry has allocated a mere 3,200,000 hectares for crops this year. Of that amount, around half are earmarked for cotton, about a third for grain crops and the rest will be used to grow fodder, vegetables and legumes.

Andijan's farmers contributed upwards of 380,000 tons of raw cotton to government stocks last year. "This year, the authorities set us a target of 400,000 tons, so we had no choice but to expand the acreage," explained Mirzakhakimov.

Although Uzbekistan gained independence and declared its commitment to a market economy ten years ago, its agriculture is still governed by the old communist precepts of a planned financial system.

The government sets regional targets not only for raw cotton, but also for other crops including grain. It is the duty of heads of regional and local authorities to make sure these are fulfilled.

Local authorities set binding targets for local farmers - and those who fall short risk losing their land next year. Regional and local governors in turn risk losing their jobs if they fail to meet government targets for cotton or grain. The system is exactly the same it was in the Soviet era.

It is ironic that after gaining independence, the new leadership condemned the Soviet communist party as an exploiter of the Uzbek people because it forced the nation to only grow cotton.

Just as in the old days, cotton growers cannot set their own prices or sell their harvest to anyone other than the government, which sets very low rates - even though Uzbekistan has recently signed a memorandum on economic and financial policy with the International Monetary Fund which states that farmers should be allowed to sell 50 per cent of their harvest on the open market this year.

Farmers do not believe the memorandum will change anything. One worker at the Toshmatov collective farm, who declined to be named, told IWPR he did not believe the government would ever mend its ways. "They have unlawfully confiscated our land for cotton and they will be back to seize our cotton harvest for a pittance," he said.

"Cotton has never been a profitable crop for farmers. Government officials are the ones who clean up on it. It makes no sense for us to grow cotton if all we are paid for it is 15 sums - around two US cents - per kilo."

Farmers at the Toshmatov collective have not reported for work since the local authority seized their land for cotton. "We cannot work for nothing anymore," said one. "We should be allowed to grow the crops that are good for us, not the bureaucrats."

Khalmukhamed Sabirov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Uzbekistan

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