“White gold” exploitation causes dire poverty in Uzbekistan

Think cotton. Think comfortable t-shirts, skin-soothing wads, fluffy balls of flowers and fields of gorgeous natural white blooms? Think again.

Conventional cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides. At the factory stage, effluent may also contain a number of toxins.

Cotton is also linked to one of the largest man-made disasters in history- the drying of the Aral sea.

The Aral sea lies between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south. Once the world’s fourth largest body of inland water, the Aral has now shrunk to just 15% of its former volume.

The formerly prosperous fishing industry which used to employ up to 60 000 people has totally collapsed, while the once busy ports have become ghost towns.

The tragedy is one of ambition and total mismanagement.

In the 1940s, the Soviet government constructed multiple irrigation canals diverting water from the river basin feeding the Aral sea to fields of “white gold” or cotton. Cotton is one of the most water intensive crops in the world. By the 60s, the sea began to shrink and by the 1998, the volume of the sea was down by 80 percent.

One may say the plan of the Soviets worked. Uzbekistan became the world’s sixth biggest cotton producer. Today, cotton accounts for 60% of the country’s hard currency export earnings. But what was the cost of this success?

A recent assessment by the World Bank classifies 30.5% of the country’s rural population - 4.9 million Uzbeks - as “poor”, declaring them “unable to meet their basic consumption needs”. Of these, approximately 1.8 million were said to be extremely poor.

In October this year, the U.S. Labor Department also included cotton from Uzbekistan on a list of goods produced by force and child labour. Human rights groups like the International Labour Rights Forum report that “each year during the three-month harvest, Uzbek authorities shut down hundreds of schools, hospitals and public offices. Along with the children, thousands of teachers, doctors and public administrators are forced into the fields.”

The fact of the matter is that many farmers can’t plant other crops as a result of the government’s strict control on cotton farming. Regional governors are tasked to deliver their region’s annual cotton quota as set out by the government. Hence, farmers are constantly pressurized to deliver, compromising food supply as they toil to harvest “white gold.”

What’s worse is that there has been many reports of corruption draining farmers’ income from cotton. The Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK Charity says that “the official price that farmers receive in return for their cotton represents just one third of its true value. But the real outlook is far more bleak. Farmers have reported that they don’t even receive the official procurement price.”

Across the border in Kyrgyzstan, media reports state that Uzbek farmers caught smuggling their cotton across do so out of desperation. They say procurement companies are ready to buy a kilogramme of cotton for US $0.50, while in Uzbekistan, the government is buying raw cotton for $0.06 to $0.07 through its centralised procurement system. No surprise then that, one estimate suggests that as little as 10-15% of the income generated by the sale of cotton goes back into agriculture and thus to the farms. The result is increasingly infertile soil and poverty.

Unicef reported in 2005 that “Uzbekistan is at the forefront in the fight against hidden hunger.” The study stated that due to malnutrition 40-60% of 6-24 month-old children are at risk of disrupted brain development, whilst the rate of anaemia in women of childbearing age is over 60%, rising to over 90% in the states of Khorezm and Karakalpakstan

It is tragic to think that had the Aral sea not dried up, thousands will still be able to rely on the waters for a living. Had the government not mandated cotton production, the land will still be able to provide sustenance to the citizens of Uzbekistan.

The example goes to show that environmental degradation may seem a necessary sacrifice in the short term bid to “development” and earning foreign exchange. But in the long term, such interference will only upset the balance of the entire ecosystem, resulting in suffering for the very same people who were supposed to benefit from “development”.

And on a larger scale of things, I would say that indirectly many of us are implicated in this matter. Did you truly reflect on the cost of that T-shirt you picked up at US$5 from the mall? Surely that price is unlikely to reflect on the true costs of agriculture, farming inputs, stitching labor and transportation. But those things are all too easy to forget, when confronted with the glee of a bargain in a glistening comfortable mall. Throw away fashion comes with serious environmental costs, you may want to think twice next time you see that sales rack.

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