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05 September 2005

Part II: Uzbekistan's Cotton

From another friend, as a part of the Independence Day Blogs:

My colleagues from a public school in Uzbekistan gather around me and touch the scarf I am wearing.

"It's cotton! Look everyone! It's real cotton!" They touch it some more and then laugh together: shouldn't they be the ones wearing cotton clothes? After all, they are the ones who have to go pick it every autumn in the fields, along with students and nurses. But the cotton never comes around to the bazaars full of colorful, synthetic dresses and shirts.

I picked cotton last year, too. We all gathered in front of the railway station where a fleet of buses waited for all the assigned pickers to arrive. Roster in hand, the directors marked the teachers present, then let them climb into the crowded buses. The atmosphere is rather jovial because it might as well be. Old friends greet each other, jokes fly, and picnic basket contents are detailed in loud voices.

After all the buses are crammed, a militsiya car leads the way to the fields, while another closes the caravan. Two bus loads get dropped off at every field and the work is supposed to begin. Each group of teacher has a quota, each school has one, too, all that to match the regional quota. The teachers know all that, but they don't feel too concerned. Since they are not paid for this work, they will make the most of a day out in the fresh air. Ignoring the puffy white balls in clumps in front of them they find themselves a cozy place to rest, eat and tell stories.

They will occasionally get up to fill an apron or two of cotton and drop it off on the school's pile, but you can see a form of protest in their slowness.

All the cotton is weighed by the owner of the field and compiled in the director's notebook, before being thrown into the tractor. Follows a daily harangue by the school director: "More cotton! We need you to pick more cotton! You are so lazy! Shame on our school if you don't pick your quota!" And if the regional quota isn't reached by the end of the season, teachers, students and nurses are sent out in the cold November weather to pick the unopened cotton, crack it open with a stone, and collect whatever lousy whiteness is in there. Those are long hard days. Nothing like an indian summer picnic.

And there's still no cotton clothes in the local bazaar.


01 September 2005

Independence Day Pledge Post: Uzbekistan's Cotton

From a friend, as part of the Independence Day blogging pledge:

In Uzbekistan, independence day is marked with huge, state celebrations and blanket TV coverage of endless traditional dancers, and singers belting out nationalist songs. In the schools the first day of school, the second of September, is marked with an all school first bell gathering after which all students retire to their homerooms for a nationalist history class. Then they will go home until classes start the next day. Most of those children, however, will only be in class for a few weeks.

In middle or late September, the cotton harvest begins. The state depends heavily on cotton revenue. Many small towns exist for the sole economic purpose of producing cotton. Farmers, despite technically owning their own land, cannot grow anything the state doesn't tell them to; and the state says cotton (rotated every year or two with wheat). The sole determining factor for what is grown is the local governor's (Hokim) need to make his quota of cotton. When it comes to raising the necessary material the Hokim can direct the farming co-operative (Kholghoz) to do his will. Since Soviet times, however, the picking of this cotton has been less and less automated.

Thankfully the Hokim has one more resource up his sleeve to make up this production gap: school children. Universities and colleges have no classes for two months while they are bussed out to rural campsites to pick all day. 7th, 8th, and 9th grades show up at school to be bussed to local fields to pick for a similar two months. Inevitably, however, the quota is not reached and the Hokim calls on school directors to send out more bodies. By October and early November children as young as 10 will be sent daily to ever-colder fields with ever-less cotton to meet their class picking quota, to meet the schools quota, to meet the Hokim's quota.

School children are given IOUs for the cotton theypick (last year 32 sum, 3 US cents per kilo picked), but most are never paid. The older children realize this and go to extraordinary efforts to finish their day exactly on quota.

The last clever piece of this puzzle is that no one in the town, with the exception of the Hokim and his cronies, will see any benefit from the sale of this cotton. In Soviet times the shipping out of the cotton facilitated the shipping in of everything else. Now there is nothing. People who work in the cotton packing plants are only paid in kind from the state store, school teachers are not paid, doctors and nurses are not paid. All public services which the cotton export should theoretically pay for can only be obtained by bribes.

The only people who benefit from the sale of Uzbekistan's cotton (cotton, generally, of the lowest possible grade) are the autocrats that compel the population to continue its cultivation.

Uzbeks report that each bale of cleaned, dried cotton (about 2ookg) sells abroad for 400 dollars. After the picking season the processing factories work 24 hours a day until April. A bale of cotton comes off the line, and heads for a flatbed train car - every 10 minutes or so.


And some more posts to honour the day:
(or wisely refer to a great, and much more comprehensive, list here)
Disillusioned Kid - Blogging For Uzbekistan - Cotton Embargo Blogging - Background on the Uzbek Cotton Industry
Otto Pohl - The History of Cotton in Uzbekistan
Naked Lunch - What Drives Support For This Torturer?
Bloggerheads - The Ballad of Islam Karimov
The Sharpener - A Central Asian primer and call for action

29 August 2005

On September 1st, Blog for Uzbekistan!

September 1st is Uzbekistan's independence day, and what a better way to celebrate than to inform yourself and those around you about the ongoing human rights abuses and threats to independence in Uzbekistan...

To get you started, here is a fabulous new site with exactly this end in mind - complete with a brand new flash animation and a nice collection of links to relevant articles that will get you 'in the know' quickly.

Then, why don't you pledge a commitment to spread the word at Blog For Uzbekistan Pledge Bank(which reached its goal yesterday!). Every little bit helps in working towards the critical mass of informed people needed to effect change.

Intentionally or not, this week's Economist ("The Oiloholics" issue) joined right in the effort with a powerful leader article criticizing international institutions for their lack of response and pressure on Karimov in the wake of the Andijon massacre. Considering how quickly the media, as a whole, 'moved on' afterwards, the economist deserves 3 huge cheers for reminding its immense readership of what's at stake...

22 July 2005

Противостояние цензуре в Интернете

This site is done under lots of anonymity, but it'd be fabulous to figure out a way to help them out...

09 June 2005


Trying to track down more info on these two human rights organisations in Uzbekistan - the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) and the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (IHRSOU). It appears that both were authorised by the government in 2002 as a token gesture to the international community. But what has happened to them since May 13th?

Human Rights Watch quotes members of both organisations in a recent news report, but have found no word on the current state of the groups. HRSU has a website, but it looks as though it hasn't been updated since May 5th - this invokes pessimism...

The website provides a mailing address as well as a link for an English translation of the site (otherwise in Russian or Uzbek), but apparently they are too short on resources to keep the English version maintained.

It'd be great to figure out a way to financially support these groups, once we establish whether or not they're still functioning and how to best transfer funds. Any info is greatly appreciated - please email or submit a comment below.

08 June 2005

Institute for War & Peace Reporting

IWPR has consistently been the best source of in-depth news about Uzbekistan. Their correspondents are some of the very few independent (i.e. not government-sponsored) journalists in the country and were the first on the scene on May 13th. IWPR is also one of the very few sources I've found to report on the annual cotton harvest, where thousands of children are sent by their schools to pick cotton, often for weeks at a time, instead of attending classes (see The Cost of Uzbek White Gold).

Recently, one of their Uzbek correspondents was arrested by the militsiya -- a strong signal of the tough times ahead not just for IWPR, but for all free press and free speech in Uzbekistan.

From the IWPR website: "The Institute for War & Peace Reporting strengthens local journalism in areas of conflict. By training reporters, facilitating dialogue and providing reliable information, it supports peace, democracy and development in societies undergoing crisis and change."

Their reporting on Iraq is also fantastic. Donate to IWPR