“There was no choice; you did not get to say no. They told you to go pick cotton and you went and picked cotton, no questions asked”
“Everyone went and picked cotton, for three months you could not do anything else; no parties, no weddings, nothing. You scheduled those events around cotton season”
Uzbekistan then was under Soviet control; cotton farming was a huge industry for the Soviet Union and continues to be the main economic export for Uzbekistan. During the Soviet years, vast resources and investments were poured into the Uzbek region for cotton, making the region a global powerhouse for cotton production.
The impact cotton farming has had on the region is enormous. It has infiltrated the culture, the language, and the economy and has had lasting effects on the environment, health care, and politics; even after the fall of the Soviet Union. I wish to spend a few spans of attention on the effects cotton farming has had in the Uzbekistan region after the fall of the Soviet Union; but my primary focus will be on the environmental impacts cotton farming has had there. More specifically, based on my research of Central Asia’s environmental problems, I’ve come to believe that environmental degradation due to cotton farming in the region is extensive and long lasting and severely impacts on health and economics of the region and its people.
There is a wealth of information published on the region’s irrigation routes, heavy fertilizer usage, and dependency on pesticides in Uzbekistan. The cotton culture of Uzbekistan also received a lot of scholarly attention; however, academia does not seem to want to integrate environmental impact studies with cultural manifestations to help us formulate a holistic understanding of the region’s developing problems. My interests reside with exactly this holistic topic: to explore how the local populations are affected by this cotton industry; how is living in a kolkhoz, farming the ‘white gold’ of Central Asia, and scheduling life events around the cotton industry have shaped this region that we see today. I will also lend to the discourse surrounding agricultural practices associated with cotton farming and the possible negative environmental impact that can occur. This impact permeates health, culture, and economics in any given culture and an interdisciplinary approach provides the kind of knowledge that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Cotton Farming in Uzbekistan has taken on a culture of its own. According to Bohr (2004), Uzbekistan has replaced Moscow as the dominant power in Central Asia; and has become a leading economic free market in Central Asia (Bayzakov, 2011). This was largely because of the strategic partnership with the United States post September 11, 2001, as well as, the immense amount of money the Uzbekistan receives from cotton farming. Together with the low cost of labor to produce it, cotton farming accounts for 20-30 percent of all rural employment and uses approximately 40 percent of all irrigated water (Rudenk, Lamers, & Grote, 2009).
Uzbekistan accounts for two-thirds of Central Asia’s irrigated land (Lubin, 1989). According to Lipovsky (1995), the mid 1960’s experienced an intense cultivation campaign eventually increasing the cultivated land in the region to 4.2 million hectares. This led to an increase in economic wealth; however, the ‘white gold’ still could not provide for the rapidly growing population (Lubin, 1989).
Because the rapid population growth also required water to survive, combined with the increased irrigation to the cotton fields, the people saw critical water shortages in Uzbekistan. An irrigation effort was developed in the early years of the Soviet regime; starting in 1913 (Lubin,1989) and intensified in the 1960’s (Lipovsky, 1995). The two large rivers of the area, the Amudarya and the Syrdarya, which dump into the Aral Sea were engineered into irrigation routes to the cotton fields of Uzbekistan (Spoor, 1998). This caused environmental damage to the Aral Sea itself (Lipovsky, 1995; Spoor, 1998), as well as an increase shortage of water to the local population. According to Zanca (2011), water shortages have led to cultural unrest and accounts for most of the conflict in the Ferghana Valley. Water is such a scare commodity and so important in the rural areas, especially in the cotton fields, that
“the land itself had-and retains today-of little value without sufficient irrigation. Securing the rights to water and receiving adequate amounts were as important a part of agriculture as any other. Historically, irrigation management and organization in Uzbekistan have emphasized that control over water’s movement often was key in maintaining power and privilege”(Zanca, 2011).
The use of power and privilege around natural resources is also played out in the rural cotton farms called the “kolkhoz.” Zanca discusses the political structure of the “kolkhoz”; that the leadership is “dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats of the ancient regime.” These bureaucrats administer wages and payment in kind; the people of the kolkhoz are dependent on them to provide wages and other necessities as wheat, cooking oil, and rice for their labor in the cotton fields. Most villagers view the leaders as corrupt and willing to capitalize on anything, including “ directly pocketing kolkhoz income-either the farm’s budget or profit.” This is much different than the free market economy that the Uzbekistan expects in modern times. According to Trevisani (2009), as cited in Liu (2011),
“Uzbekistan’s rural sector does not exemplify “transition to the [free] market,” but reregulation via control of markets to bring efficiencies for the state budget at the expense of farmers who bear most of the risk.”Those living in the Kolkhoz have a much higher rate for health problems associated with contaminated water; although, all Uzbeks are at risk: “large portions of the population lack drinking water systems and must drink water straight from often contaminated irrigation ditches and canals” (Lubin, 1989). When population grows, demand on water grows. The deterioration of water within Central Asia can lead to conflicts, as seen in the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan. However, according to Lipovsky (1995), Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have had conflicts over water use from the Amudarya as well. Lipovsky noted “that Turkic and Islamic solidarity recedes into the background with the issue at stake is division of such a precious resource as water.”
Uzbekistan also suffers from poor soil quality due to heavy cotton farming.
“large-scale use of dangerous pesticides, exceedingly poor irrigation, and especially poor drainage systems have led to a very high filtration of salinized and contaminated water back into the soil. Water with high levels of salt, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other wastes has severely contaminated the fresh-water supply."
The use of agrochemicals takes an exhausting toll on the earth. In Uzbekistan, “more than 400 kilograms of fertilizers are used per hectare of cotton” and “pesticides are used at levels dozens of times higher than required” (Lubin, 1989). This leads to pests developing immunities to the pesticides and potentially can cause serious crop failure. If the cotton crop fails, there will be immense economic effects in the region.
But weaning off this chemical dependency is not so easy. Once the pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used in the farming process, it becomes necessary to continue to use them to get the desired yield. The agrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, along with ceasing the crop rotation process, have huge negative effects on the soil. Libovsky points out the “thoughtless use of fertilizer-many times exceeding the amounts required-the earth on many cotton fields has become covered with a thin layer of salts and chemicals.” Declines in soil quality from chemical fertilizers, as well as an increase in salinization of the land, due to irrigation, has in turn “led to declining quality in the production and quality of both seed cotton and food” (Lubin, 1989); this has also led to exceedingly large investment to be put into these farms, with long-term losses outweighing current production.
In addition to contaminating the water supply, pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers do harm in other ways. Some negative health effects associated with intake of pesticides and fertilizers (whether it be through the air or through consumption of water) include: double the cancer rates in high agro areas versus other areas, an increased frequency of hepatitis, anemia, and dystrophy, just to name a few.
The salinization of land has caused higher salt content in water, paving the way for disease and health problems, especially in infants. According to Lubin, “infant mortality rates have risen dramatically” and “in some regions, the breast milk of women has a salt content several times higher than normal; pesticides have also been found in women’s blood and breast milk.” Most of all women who work in cotton fields suffer from different illnesses that are brought on by pollution of the environment (Lipovsky, 1995).
The petrochemical fertilizer and chemical pesticides are taking their toll on the human population of Uzbekistan, where there have been increases in birth defects and plant and animal mutations. When the shear amount of pollution is taken into account, combined with economic and health care issues, the region’s population also faces a wide range of physiological health problems (Crighton, Elliott, Meer, Small & Upshur, 2003). This is a very high price to pay for cotton, even if it is the number one export for Uzbekistan.
How is Uzbekistan going to manage such horrible water, soil, and environmental conditions and the necessity of such a large cotton industry while balancing its obligations to the people living in the region?
The cotton industry has rooted itself in the Uzbek economy. The money that the cotton has brought in has also funded other economical/industrial outlets, such as, chemical facilities, machine building plants, irrigation networks, hydro-electricity plants, cotton processing plants, and some textile factories (Rudenko, Lamers, & Grote, 2009). The state controls cotton production under strict standards. According to Rudenko, Lamers, and Grote, 70 percent of the Uzbek population are agricultural producers and most of them are willing to continue to grow cotton even if given the option to grow something else. Cotton in the region is viewed as the ultimate economic commodity, resulting in no cultural push to change even at the risk of higher morbidity and mortality rates associated with poor environmental quality from the agro-chemical cotton farming practices.
Zanca (2011) reports that many Kolkhozchi referred to cotton as ‘white gold’ and it “permeates so many sorts of activities and elements of social life that it literally forms a part of the Uzbek people’s diets.” Fatima, one of the Uzbek native I interviewed, recalled using cotton oil to cook and burned the stems of the cotton plant to heat their homes in the winter.
There have been reports, from the World Bank, as cited in Rudenko, Lamers, and Grote (2009), of privatizing the cotton sector, to help increase monetary compensation for cotton farmers such as the Kolkhoz. However, no information as to whether that has occurred could be found.
The cotton industry in Uzbekistan is currently walking a tight rope, balancing environmental problems, water shortages, poor soil quality, and increased population. Zanca stated that there has been a decrease in hectares dedicated to cotton since 1990; however, it was primarily due to poor soil quality.
Relying so heavily on a single agro-mono culture has had negative effects in other countries in the region as well as increases the dependency on other countries to purchase the export. In some instances an agricultural monoculture can be dated back to dependence on colonialism described by Lipovsky (1995),
“In contrast to former African and Asian colonies which have in time managed to overcome their absolute dependence on their colonial masters, the Central Asian states find themselves in a position which is aggravated by their fatal dependence on Russian water sources.”A political tie that must be retained in order to have access to water is a scary idea for any nation, especially one in a situation like Uzbekistan.
The environmental degradation that has occurred in Uzbekistan is going to take decades to fix. The heavy reliance on petro-chemical agriculture is going to have to be controlled in some capacity in order for anything to grow in the future. With such pollution and environmental contamination, the adverse health effects are going to take their toll on the local population as well as the nation’s economy. Preventive healthcare is difficult as is in the Central Asian region, let alone when people are fighting a chemical battle with their drinking water. An intervention is extensively needed in Uzbekistan in order to combat the problems to come.
How this will effect the population of Uzbekistan?
Only time will tell.