A number of people have questioned me on the call in my recent Guardian article for sanctions against the Uzbek cotton industry. Several have pointed to the disastrous effects of sanctions against Iraq.
My proposal relates only to cotton, so is of course much more targeted than the sanctions against Iraq.
The Uzbek cotton industry is a disastrous aberration created by Soviet central planning. Over 80% of the loss of water from the Aral Sea is due to irrigation for the Uzbek cotton industry, so it is responsible for one of the World’s greatest environmental disasters. On most agricultural land in Uzbekistan, cotton has been grown as a monoculture for fifty years, with no rotation. This of course exhausts the soil and encourages pests. As a result the cotton industry employs massive quantities of pesticide and fertiliser. As a result it is not just that the Aral Sea is disappearing, but that and fertiliser.y years, with no rotation.the whole area of the former sea suffers appalling pollution, reflected in appalling levels of disease.
Uzbek farm workers are tied to the farm. They need a propusk (visa) to move away ‘ which they won’t get. The state farm worker normally gets two dollars a month. Their living and nutritional standards would improve greatly if, rather than grow cotton, they had a little area to grow subsistence crops. What follows is the executive summary from the International Crisis Group report on Central Asian cotton of March 2005.
The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contributes to political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental degradation. Without structural reform in the industry, it will be extremely difficult to improve economic development, tackle poverty and social deprivation, and promote political liberalisation in the region. If those states, Western governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) do not do more to encourage a new approach to cotton, the pool of disaffected young men susceptible to extremist ideology will grow with potentially grave consequences for regional stability.
The economics of Central Asian cotton are simple and exploitative. Millions of the rural poor work for little or no reward growing and harvesting the crop. The considerable profits go either to the state or small elites with powerful political ties. Forced and child labour and other abuses are common.
This system can only work in an unreformed economy with little scope for competition, massive state intervention, uncertain or absent land ownership, and very limited rule of law. Given the benefits they enjoy, there is little incentive for powerful vested interests to engage in serious structural economic reform, which could undermine their lucrative business as well as eventually threaten their political power.
This system is only sustainable under conditions of political repression, which can be used to mobilise workers at less than market cost. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the world’s most repressive states, with no free elections. Opposition activists and human rights defenders are subject to persecution. The lack of a free media allows many abuses to go unreported. Unelected local governments are usually complicit in abuses, since they have little or no accountability to the population. Cotton producers have an interest in continuing these corrupt and non-democratic regimes.
The industry relies on cheap labour. Schoolchildren are still regularly required to spend up to two months in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan. Despite official denials, child labour is still in use in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Students in all three countries must miss their classes to pick cotton. Little attention is paid to the conditions in which children and students work. Every year some fall ill or die.
Women do much of the hard manual labour in cotton fields, and reap almost none of the benefits. Cash wages are minimal, and often paid late or not at all. In most cotton-producing areas, growers are among the poorest elements in society. Not surprisingly, young men do everything to escape the cotton farms, forming a wave of migrants both to the cities and out of the region.
The environmental costs of the monoculture have been devastating. The depletion of the Aral Sea is the result of intensive irrigation to fuel cotton production. The region around the sea has appalling public health and ecological problems. Even further upstream, increased salinisation and desertification of land have a major impact on the environment. Disputes over water usage cause tension among Central Asian states.
Reforming the cotton sector is not easy. Structural change could encourage the growth of an industry that benefits rural farmers and the state equally but economic and political elites have resisted. Land reform has been blocked in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and has moved too slowly in Tajikistan. Farmers still have no permanent ownership of the lands they work and no real say in the choice of crops they wish to grow or to whom they sell their produce.
Central Asian cotton is traded internationally by major European and U.S. corporations; its production is financed by Western banks, and the final product ends up in well-known clothes outlets in Western countries. But neither the international cotton trading companies nor the clothing manufacturers pay much attention to the conditions in which the cotton is produced. Nor have international organisations or IFIs done much to address the abuses. U.S. and EU subsidy regimes for their own farmers make long-term change more difficult by depressing world prices.
The cotton monoculture is more destructive to Central Asia’s future than the tons of heroin that regularly transit the region. Although the international community has invested millions of dollars in counter-narcotics programs, very little has been done to counteract the negative impact of the cotton industry. Changing the business of Central Asian cotton will take time, but a real reform of this sector of the economy would provide more hope for the stability of this strategic region than almost anything else the international community could offer.
To the Governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan:
1. Take urgent action to end child labour in cotton fields, by:
(a) adhering to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention C182 (1999), on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour;
(b) making clear public statements against the activity;
(c) punishing officials who continue to use or turn a blind eye to child labour; and
(d) establishing monitoring bodies including international, industry and government representatives, to ensure laws and declared policy against child labour are actually implemented.
2. End the use of students and government employees as forced labour in the cotton fields.
3. Invite the ILO to investigate labour abuses in the cotton industry.
To the Governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan:
4. Begin programs of land reform that would gradually develop the level of private farming and provide safeguards for property rights.
5. Reduce state interference in the agricultural sector, including the issuance of artificial production quotas, and particularly end the use of law enforcement agencies and local authorities to enforce such quotas and related orders.
6. Increase cotton procurement prices to approach the world price so as to alleviate rural poverty and provide market incentives to growers.
To the Government of Tajikistan:
7. Accelerate land reform and provide much more advice and legal protection to farmers, particularly in cotton-growing areas.
8. End government quotas for cotton, reduce state interference at local and central levels in farming, liberalise price-setting mechanisms, and aim to ensure reasonable minimum farmgate prices.
9. In coordination with local and international investors, conduct a thorough audit of investors’ claimed farm debts and develop a plan for resolution of farm debt that favours farmers.
10. Audit contracts between futures companies and farmers and halt the activities of companies engaged in dishonest or exploitative practices.
11. Implement agricultural policies that balance food security with production of hitherto prioritised export crops like cotton.
12. Suspend the policy of resettlement to cotton-growing regions until migrants can be guaranteed potable water, social services, and opportunities for off-farm income.
To international financial institutions and donors:
13. Create a joint working group, including, where possible, private foreign investors, to coordinate strategies on the Central Asian cotton industry.
14. Continue and expand programs that emphasise:
(a) legal assistance and human rights protection for farmers, including advocacy at government level;
(b) new forms of association for farmers, such as unions, rural credit associations, and marketing networks;
(c) alternative crop programs and new growing methods, such as organic cotton; and
(d) support for rural women, to provide employment alternatives to the cotton fields.
15. Support NGO and media outlets that are actively involved in uncovering abuses in the cotton industry.
To the European Union, its member states, and the U.S. Government:
16. Work within the WTO toward a phasing out or substantial reduction of subsidies in domestic cotton industries.
17. Work within and through the ILO to:
(a) achieve respect in the cotton industries of Central Asian states for Convention C182 (1999), on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, and for related standards respecting student forced labour and other abuses; and
(b) encourage international cotton traders to implement a policy of social due diligence with regard to local middlemen and cotton producers, end business dealings with those shown to be engaged in abusive or exploitative practices, and engage with governments, NGOs, IFIs and international organisations in joint efforts to improve working conditions on cotton farms.
18. Further work within and through the ILO to encourage international clothing enterprises to:
(a) make available to customers information on the origins of cotton products;
(b) carry out social due diligence with regard to suppliers of cotton;
(c) seek assurances that cotton is picked in accordance with international labour norms;
(d) investigate the feasibility of a process of certification of cotton origin on clothes and other textile products; and
(e) expand fair trade programs to include cotton and cotton products.
It is fair to note that the ICG’s recommendations do not include a boycott. But I am afraid to say that there is politically no chance at all that the Karimov regime would voluntarily go along with any of the key recommendations. Compulsion is needed to force change, and a boycott is the way to attain that.
The object of a cotton boycott would be not just to obtain reform of the cotton industry, but to attack the income of the Karimov elite and thus break up their political alliances. I should be quite open about this ‘ action is needed to produce early political change in Uzbekistan.
See also my speech “The Trouble With Uzbekistan” on this website.