Cotton in Central Asia: a story of poverty, environmental degradation and labour exploitation

Washington (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contributes to economic stagnation and environmental degradation, and is based on the exploitation of workers, including child labour, this according to a recent report titled The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia's Destructive Monoculture released by the International Crisis Group (ICS), an independent, non-profit, multinational organisation dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution.

The cotton industry is primary for the economy of these countries. For example, Uzbekistan is the fifth largest cotton producer in the world, and cotton brought in almost US$ 900 million in 2003.

The report highlights how, in steppes with low productivity, "millions of the rural poor work for little or no reward growing and harvesting the crop". It is cheap labour, essentially women and children. And schoolchildren have to spend up several months in the fields, missing their classes, some falling ill or dying. No wonder that young men try to escape the cotton farms for lack of opportunities.

What is more, farm workers do not own the land they cultivate and cannot choose what to grow or to whom sell their produce.

This lack of manpower prompted Turkmenistan President Niyazov to announce that coming summer soldiers will be sent to work in the cotton fields.

According to the ICS, complicity between local governments and corporations and the lack of a free media, which is still state-controlled, have allowed this exploitation to go on unreported.

The environmental costs of cotton growing have been devastating. The Aral Sea has been depleted as a result of intensive irrigation needed to feed cotton production. This, in turn, is transforming the region into a salt-covered desert.

Central Asian cotton is traded by major European and US corporations; its production is financed by Western banks, and the final product ends up in well-known clothes outlets in Western countries.

To protect the communities involved, some sort of business certification from buyers might be a good idea, said the ICS. (PB)