Uzbek Cotton Industry 5

Two very interesting bits of information on the Uzbek cotton industry. The first is an extract from a chapter on the disappearance of the Aral Sea, from the excellent book “When the Rivers Run Dry” by Fred Pearce. If the Aral Sea were anywhere else in the World, this monumental environmental catastrophe would receive massive publicity. As it is, it is almost entirely forgotten.

My only thought is that the situation is even worse than Pearce outlines. It is very hard to get any worthwhile statistics on Uzbekistan, and all those used by international organisations ultimately derive from Uzbek government sources. There are no independent research institutes allowed in Uzbekistan. In fact the proportion of the population enslaved on state farms is closer to 60% than 40%.


Chapter 25


About five kilometres out to sea, I spotted a fox. It wasn’t swimming. For the sea as marked on the map is no longer a sea. The fox was jogging through endless tamarisk on the bed of what was once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water. In the past 40 years, most of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has turned into a huge uncharted desert. For the most part, no human has ever set foot there. This new desert is adding dry land the size of a small English county every year. It cannot be long before someone decides that it should be protected as a unique, virgin desert. But for now, such is the scale of what has happened here, that the UN calls the disappearance of the Aral Sea the greatest environmental disaster of the 20th century.

Till the 1960s, the Aral Sea covered an area the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined and contained more than a thousand cubic kilometres of water. It was renowned in the Soviet Union for its blue waters, plentiful fish, stunning beaches and bustling fishing ports. Most atlases still show a single chunk of blue. But the new reality is very different. The sea is broken into three hypersaline pools, containing only about a tenth as much water as before. The beach resorts and promenades lie abandoned. The fish died long ago. As the fox and I peered north from near the former southern port of Muynak, there was no sea for 150 kilometres. It felt like the end of the world.

What has caused this environmental Armageddon? The answer lies in the death of the two great rivers that once drained a huge swathe of central Asia into the Aral Sea. The biggest is the Amu Darya. Once named the Oxus, it was as big as the Nile. In the fourth century, Alexander the Great fought battles on its waters as he headed for Samarkand and the creation of the world’s largest military empire. It still crashes out of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. But, like its smaller twin, the Syr Darya from the Tian Shan mountains, it is largely lost in the desert lands between the mountains and the sea.

During the 20th century, these two rivers were part of the Soviet Union. And Soviet engineers contrived to divert almost all their flow ‘ around 110 cubic kilometres a year — to irrigate cotton fields that they planted in the desert…

Today in Uzbekistan, the biggest producer, the government is still the only purchaser, and meeting cotton production targets remains a national obsession. During the harvest season, cotton employs a staggering 40 per cent of Uzbekistan’s workforce, including hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. Every province, every canal network and every farm has its production target. Even as the old collective farms are privatised, the targets persist, and farmers and officials can lose their land and jobs for failing to meet them. And cotton still consumes most of the region’s water.

During October 2004, during my visit, the government declared that Uzbek cotton production had exceeded 3 million tonne for the first time in several years. Ministers were interviewed on the TV standing in cotton fields brimming with pride. Officials that had seemed uptight and nervous suddenly relaxed. The bottles of vodka came out. Nobody cared that in the process the ratchet on the Aral Sea had been given one more turn.

The amount of water used here is simply insane. Today the countries around the Aral Sea ‘ Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — occupy five of the top seven places in the world league table of per-capita water users. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two countries that take their water from the Amu Darya, use more water per head of population than any others on Earth. The Aral Sea basin is very far from being short of water. The problem is the simply staggering level of water use…


I also received, courtesy of exiled Uzbek dissident Evgeni Dyakonov, a set of photos showing the condition of state-forced child labour in the Uzbek cotton fields. These are not sensationalist; they are very much the everyday conditions in which hundreds of thousands of Uzbek children are forced to live for months. The harvest can begin in late August with temperatures well over 40C, and finish in late November with temperatures well below freezing. I have seen children picking cotton in the snow.

I think the photos may originally be from the Environmental Justice Foundation, who have done good work on Uzbk cotton.

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5 thoughts on “Uzbek Cotton Industry

  • Strategist

    Not only the environmental disaster of central Asian cotton, but the humanitarian disaster of slave labour to harvest cotton in the 21st century is seldom reported and not widely known.

    Ironical that this year we are all supposedly celebrating the anniversary of Britain's banning of slavery, but all choose to turn away from the reality that 200 years later our cotton is still being picked by slaves so that we can buy our ?5 t-shirts at Primark etc.

    We need more info on the cotton supply chain so that we know more about how the product of abused children in Uzbekistan makes its way via sweatshops in Bangladesh or wherever to our wonderful low cost clothing retail outlets. I feel that the supply chain for tea, coffee or chocolate (cocoa production also still uses slavery a lot) and the need for fairtrade is much more widely understood than that for cotton.

    Keep it up, Craig, and keep giving us more info & info sources

  • Craig

    Thank you. About one in four of all cotton garments sold in the UK contain a percentage of slave-picked Uzbek cotton fibres. Problem is that they don't tell you on the label where the fibres came from, just where the garment was manufactured.

  • Strategist

    And no doubt British retailers employ lobbyists in Brussels to ensure that we should continue to be spared knowing where our stuff is coming from and can remain in blissful ignorance.

    Thinking about it, some quite encouraging progress has been made in recent years on increasing consumer awareness that cheap stuff available on the High Street comes at a social cost. (Although it doesn't seem to stop us all buying the stuff in ever greater quantities.)

    And I do believe I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury on the telly today, marching to commemorate the British abolition of slavery, and saying that he wanted to raise awareness of the ongoing existence of slavery in many parts of the world, (not excluding Britain's brothels).

    So perhaps all hope is not yet lost. I would like to see campaigns focusing on forcing retailers to provide information on where the stuff they sell is coming from, and funding independent audit of whether their suppliers meet basic human standards.

  • Phil Continental

    2007 is the year of environmental awareness, closely followed by social awareness – you will be surprised and pleased at the momentum that is being built up. Possibly climate change is going to be the main instigator – as people look to see how they can make a personal difference to the planet – they will also see the social injustice that often goes hand in hand with environmental pollution.

    I have seen first hand major cotton apparel producers – Hanes, Gildan, Fruit etc, quickly following the lead of each other to demonstrate their environmental credentials, organic is high on the agenda now, and soon to follow is fairly traded and climate change.

    The throw away nature of such as Primark is also being attacked.

    On a personal note, it's a shame things always have to get bad before we begin to make things better.

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