Date: Thu, 20 Nov 1997 10:56:41 -0800
Free of Russians, but Imprisoned in Cotton
By Stephen Kinzer, Uzbekistan Journal, 20 November 1997
[G] AZLI, Uzbekistan—The classic description of Uzbek geography as two-thirds desert and one-third cotton fields is something of an exaggeration, but it does seem that wherever there is arable land here, there is cotton.
Countless Uzbek families have been cultivating "white gold" for generations. Brigades of students are trucked into the fields every year at harvest time. Cotton motifs decorate everything from road signs to teacups.
In a field outside Gazli, a town in central Uzbekistan, Shamor Karamova spends her autumn days hunched over the blossoming plants, picking puffy white bolls and tossing them into a long burlap sack slung over her shoulder. She began doing this work when she was 15 and now, 25 years later, she can imagine no other way of life.
"We live from cotton, and Uzbekistan lives from our work," she said during a short break from her labor.
Ms. Karamova earns the equivalent of two cents for each pound of cotton she picks, which gives her a monthly income of about $135. Her family works a small tract of land that it bought from the government three years ago, but in practice she is still part of a state-run production system.
"We get our seeds, our fertilizer and everything else we need from the government," she said. "After we pick the cotton, we sell it to the government. How could it be any other way?"
Cotton is big in Uzbekistan, and without it the Uzbek state is all but unimaginable. Farmers sell their produce to the government at a fixed price, and the state then sells it on the world market for about three times that price. The profit is this land's main source of income, as it has been for more than a century.
Soon after Russian armies began conquering central Asia in the mid-19th century, civil war broke out in the United States, disrupting the supply of cotton from Southern states to Europe. The czars, quick to recognize a market, ordered that Uzbekistan and surrounding regions be turned into vast cotton plantations.
Several of the strains they introduced came directly from the United States, including one from Mississippi that still bears the evocative name "delta."
Soviet leaders extended and intensified the czars' plan, raising Uzbekistan's output from 200,000 tons in 1924 to a reported 9 million tons in 1980.
Two-thirds of the Soviet Union's cotton came from Uzbekistan, but there was not a single textile factory here. Soviet planners feared that if such factories were built they would drain labor from the fields. Raw cotton was sent to other parts of the Soviet Union for processing, and many Uzbek cotton pickers never owned a single garment made from the fiber they harvested.
Today Uzbekistan exports 5 million tons of cotton each year, making it the world's fifth-largest producer.
During the period of Soviet rule here, so much water from Uzbekistan's principal river, the Amu Darya, was siphoned into cotton irrigation canals that none was left to flow into the Aral Sea. As a result the sea has been shrinking at an alarming rate, and scientists fear it may dry up altogether within 25 years.
"There is a saying in Uzbekistan that cotton is white, but it works black," said Akhmadjon Meliboyev, a journalist who has written extensively about cotton and the problems it has brought to Uzbekistan. "That means it has had a terrible effect on our people."
"Cotton fields extend right up to the walls of houses, kindergartens and schools, so pesticides sprayed on the fields have also been sprayed on people," Meliboyev said. "Land that was used to grow cotton was land we couldn't use to grow food. Total reliance on this one crop has prevented us from developing a balanced economy, and since everything is built for cotton production, we are finding it very difficult to change."
Because cotton has so completely dominated this region for so long, it was perhaps inevitable that it play a key role in the biggest political scandal in modern Uzbek history.
In the 1970s, Uzbek officials devised an elaborate fraud in which they managed to bill the central government in Moscow for the costs of producing large amounts of cotton which in fact did not exist. Hundreds of people were involved, diverting funds estimated at up to $2 billion. The scam thrived until the mid-1980s, when aides to the Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov realized from satellite photographs that land supposedly producing cotton was in fact lying fallow.
Discovery of the fraud led to a series of arrests and several suicides. Dozens of officials, including a son-in-law of the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, were sentenced to jail terms.
Sharaf Rashidov, the Uzbek leader during whose 24-year rule the fraud was perpetrated, died in 1983 and so avoided punishment. Reviled in death as a corrupt thief by the Soviets, he is now widely viewed here as a clever Uzbek who managed to outwit the supposedly more sophisticated Russians. A statue of him now stands in Tashkent, the capital, and a main avenue there has been named for him.
Since Uzbekistan became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, foreign companies have been looking for new ways to use Uzbek cotton. One of them, partly owned by American investors, is building a factory where it plans to manufacture cotton automobiles.
The company has bought a license from the company that used to manufacture the Trabant, the cheap East German car whose body was made of plastic. In the Uzbek version, the body will be made of cotton wastes.
When a prototype was unveiled last year, a company official, Vyacheslav Shin, jumped on its roof to prove its strength to skeptical onlookers.
"Admittedly it's not ultramodern," Shin said, "but it's cheap and simple. People in Uzbekistan and nearby countries are very interested."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company