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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.