Uzbekistan’s White Gold

It was once a much-praised country on the Silk Road, but then came along cotton and a bad repu­ta­tion. Uzbek­istan set out to change that – and has achieved a great deal in just a few years.

We’re doing alright here, says farmer Shavkat Khamidov with his whole face lighting up and gold teeth flashing from his mouth.

Shavkat is respon­sible for growing cotton on a farm that evolved out of the former Kommu­nizm collec­tive farm struc­ture, which under Commu­nist rule saw multiple farmers run their hold­ings as joint enter­prises. On the farm, 40ha are planted to cotton and 200ha to wheat – both grown in rota­tion. There is also a live­stock enter­prise with around 100  Jaydari cattle for the produc­tion of meat and milk. The farm is located on the outskirts of the district capital, Namangan, in the fertile Ferghana Valley. “The condi­tions here are great; the soil, the climate, and the water supply are all good,” he enthuses.

Cotton is grown exten­sively and domi­nates the land­scape in this region 300km south-east of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

After visiting the cotton fields in the Ferghana Valley, author Petra Jacob Sachs is also allowed to get on a tractor.
An employee cooks lunch for her colleagues next to the cotton field.

Before visiting the cotton fields, Shavkat invites us to a table for some freshly baked bread and a bowl of yoghurt. But he is apolo­getic for there not being enough time to slaughter a sheep – Uzbeks are known for taking hospi­tality very seri­ously.

Joined by director Abdu­jabbor Hayidov, and with food consumed, they trudge ahead to the first cotton field, 11ha in size and situ­ated behind a stand of trees. The two men disap­pear into the almost man-high bushes, on which only a few white flocks of cotton are still hanging in early November.

The condi­tions here are great; the soil, the climate, and the water are all good.

Shavkat Khamidov

Today, Shavkat’s farm, where he first started out as an agron­o­mist under the Kommu­nizm collec­tive farm struc­ture, is part of the of Tash­bulak cluster (Tosh­buloq-TEKS cluster). His work focuses on the cotton growing, while other compa­nies in the cluster are respon­sible for cotton cleaning, processing, and marketing.

Harvest time in the region is between mid-September and the end of October. From the 40ha of cotton, around 6t/ha are expected to be grown and harvested by hand by 40 full-time employees and 80-100 seasonal workers.

Harvest workers are paid the equiv­a­lent of two US dollars per kilo­gramme of picked cotton, and up to $2.50/kg at the end of the season, when the bushes are no longer as full. On average, a person manages to pick around 20kg/day. Harvesting takes place from 9am to 5pm; a lot of hours bending down in high temper­a­tures, reaching up to 40°C into September.

Uzbeks are known for their hospi­tality. Next to the cotton field, author Petra Jacob Sachs is invited to freshly baked bread and yoghurt.

A complex history

Cotton was once the most impor­tant crop in Uzbekistan.Until its inde­pen­dence in 1992, the country belonged to the Soviet Union and produced almost 70% of its cotton, making it the second most impor­tant cotton producer after the USA.

Cotton was called “white gold” because a lot of money could be made from it. However, it was at the expense of the people and the envi­ron­ment, with the Soviet govern­ment forcing the country to grow cotton through collec­tive agri­cul­ture and mono­cul­tures. In a region that was predom­i­nantly desert, water was a limiting factor for cotton produc­tion, and so the two major rivers, Amudarya and Syrdarya, which carried water to the Aral Sea, were diverted. Thou­sands of kilo­me­tres of trenches and canals were built, but quickly the Aral Sea began to dry out and the country’s impor­tant fishing industry suffered and collapsed. This and the exten­sive use of chem­i­cals, as well as a focus on growing cotton instead of other crops, led to poverty, disease and envi­ron­mental pollu­tion.

But even after inde­pen­dence from the Soviet Union, cotton growing was stip­u­lated and regu­lated by the state, and cotton still accounted for 90% of the exports at that time. When it came to harvest time, the country came to a stand­still and forced labour in the fields; school chil­dren, students, nurses and teachers had to work, even small chil­dren. Inter­na­tional crit­i­cism and the boycott of Uzbek cotton followed.

Bachrom Izbasarov, dean and professor at the Renais­sance Univer­sity of Tashkent and part-time farmer.
The Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity of Tashkent also has a cotton research centre. Cotton bushes are on display in the lobby area of the univer­sity.  

In 2016, a new pres­i­dent, Shavkat Mirziy­oyev, came to power. He intro­duced reforms, and abol­ished forced labour. In 2022, the Inter­na­tional Labour Organ­i­sa­tion (ILO) of the United Nations announced that the Uzbek cotton industry was free of child and forced labour.

Liber­al­i­sa­tion and clus­ters

With a liber­alised cotton market, the old struc­ture was out and replaced by a new one – the Cotton Cluster pilot programme. Launched in 2017, initially in a small area, the clus­ters were groups of indi­vid­uals, compa­nies and investors – including several inter­na­tional players like Russia, the USA, and Singa­pore – who provided capital and procured means of produc­tion for the farmers.

Instead of working for the state, the farms now worked within a cluster. Today, these cotton textile clus­ters domi­nate the Uzbek cotton market. According to the World Bank, there were just 15 clus­ters which farmed 16% of the cotton growing area in 2018, and by 2020, this figure had risen to 92 clus­ters farming 88%.

Professor Bachrom Izbasarov would like to get into cotton growing, but only with a John Deere harvester.

Pride of Uzbek

In September 2022, Pres­i­dent Mirziy­oyev offi­cially announced that the quota system for farmers had been abol­ished.

Uzbek cotton would no longer be exported and would be processed to produce yarn or textiles almost entirely in the country, a further mile­stone in the country’s history. Instead of exporting to Russia, Turkey, or Pakistan, the cotton market was able to add value and create jobs at home.

A good example of this revo­lu­tion is a textile factory on the north-eastern outskirts of Namangan. “Bekmen” is embla­zoned in over­sized letters above the modern fashion shop’s window, while inside, the shop over­flows with shirts, coats, and suits. More than 40 different prod­ucts are manu­fac­tured on site, according to director Sanjar Khalilov during a tour of the company. A court­yard with fruit trees leads to the tailoring shop, where around 40 women sit at sewing machines; working on coats and stuffing cotton fibres into lined winter jackets. Produc­tion here is not only for the Uzbek market, but also for foreign customers.

Since 2020, they have also been working with a German company which produces high-quality work­wear, explains director Sanjar, not without a certain sense of pride. “They like the hand-picked cotton because it is of better quality and cleaner than the machine-picked cotton, even if it costs $20 more per tonne.”

Our cotton is better than Egyptian cotton.

Bachrom Izbasarov

Uzbek cotton is better than Egyptian cotton, adds Bachrom Izbasarov, dean and professor at the Renais­sance Univer­sity of Tashkent.

Out of convic­tion, he wears shirts made from Uzbek cotton. At just 12 years old was when his father first took him to the cotton farm he managed, and finding a keen interest in cotton growing at such a young age, he went on to study agri­cul­tural sciences, writing his doctorate on the subject of cotton. There­after, he went and worked as a director on his father’s farm for 10 years.

Today, Professor Izbasarov concen­trates on educating young people at univer­sity, and works as a fruit farmer on the side. Around eight years ago, he planted 100ha of apple trees on his farm, but his biggest wish now is to get back to what he loves and start growing cotton.

“And my cotton harvesting fleet would not be complete without a John Deere harvester,” he adds. 

Insights from the train: Women in colourful dresses and head­scarves walk through the rows picking off the last few flocks.
Director Sanjar Khalilov shows off what his company now produces from Uzbek cotton. 

Impres­sions from the train

A special expe­ri­ence is the journey by train across the country from Tashkent to the oasis city of Khiva in just under 17 hours. With stops in Samarkand and Bukhara, the pearls on the Silk Road. A journey full of impres­sions and friendly people, where everyone of a certain age seems to have a story about cotton. There is Artur, he worked for a state-owned chem­ical company and was sentenced to forced labor for the last time in 2019, as he explains. Or Mekhrangiz, who, as a young language student, refused to take part in the cotton harvest and received poor grades for it. Or Ismail, who was annoyed that he was too young to take part at the time and was jealous of his big brother, who was able to skip school and meet girls because of the cotton harvest.

The land­scape flies past in front of the train window, including cotton fields. End of November: Women in colorful dresses and head­scarves march through the rows again and read the last flakes. In some cotton fields cattle have been herded, else­where the bushes have been cut and bundled into fire­wood. There are a striking number of wheat fields and newly planted orchards. This is also a trend in Uzbek agri­cul­ture: the cultivation of crops and grains as alter­na­tives. And thus another step by the country to become inde­pen­dent of cotton.