Beyond censuring reports by human rights organizations and the claims and counterclaims of activists and the Uzbek government, little is known about the daily lives of Uzbek cotton farmers.
But Russell Zanca, a cultural anthropologist at Northeastern Illinois University-Chicago, is shedding some light on the subject. The author of "Life In A Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming After Communism,"
Zanca spoke to Navbahor Imamova of Voice of America's Uzbek Service
about his work, and the interview is a fascinating insight into the farmers' lives:
Zanca became interested in the former Soviet Union as a teenager and got to know some Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan while growing up in Queens, New York.
The anthropologist said that he saw a knowledge deficit concerning Central Asia and he identified Uzbekistan as somewhere he would like to carry out ethnographic research. So Zanca went to live in an Uzbek village to experience farmers' daily lives.
Cotton is Uzbekistan's primary agricultural product and the country is a major player in the global cotton industry, with cotton being its major source of hard-currency export earnings. An estimated 65 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, with one-third of the country's workforce tied to the cotton trade.
The country has a mixed agricultural system, where private plots coexist with larger agricultural conglomerates.
Uzbek farmers, Zanca says, are pretty restricted in their activities. Cotton farmers "don't have a lot of control over what they grow and what they produce. They are as skillful as any other farmer in terms of growing things and in terms of what's needed to make a healthy crop and all that, but they don't really own their own land, they don't own their products."
People aren't against growing cotton but would like to be able to diversify their crops more, Zanca says. While there is a market for fruits, vegetables, and grains, it's likely many farmers would stick with cotton, as it's an international export commodity and they know they can make good money. "Cotton is a way of life" going back generations through families and Uzbeks certainly aren't going into the fields uniformly despising their work.
For the most part, Uzbek farmers remain poor. Even after bumper crops, revenue rarely trickles down to the farmers and increased output in a certain district often doesn't mean that the government will make improvements to the infrastructure.
Changing the system, however, does not seem to be a viable option. According to Zanca, people see that the system is corrupt but they don't really see any way out of that. As "the Uzbek state is not an entity that enjoys being criticized," there is perhaps little hope of farmers uniting and becoming politically organized. Moreover, there's not enough political will among the elites to innovate and reform the system.
"People are frightened," he says. Official visits are straight out of the Soviet playbook. Farmers are told by local officials and bosses: "You better be out there, you better be waving, you better look happy, and you better wear your best clothes.... It's a show, it's an absolute show."
There have been efforts to organize farmers politically before. Opposition activist Nigora Hidoyatova, who led the Free Peasants party
, told RFE/RL in 2005 that her party's main goal was to privatize land. "Because it is an agricultural country, the first issue to be solved is land privatization," Hidoyatova said. "But privatization isn't possible without liberalization, democratization, and overall openness."
Eight years later, however, that democratization hasn't transpired. Hidoyatova fled Uzbekistan in 2012 after she says she was threatened and repeatedly summoned for interrogation.
For change to occur from the countryside you'd need activists and a developed civil society with politically engaged people -- but those kinds of freedoms for activists just don't exist in Uzbekistan, according to Zanca.
From what he observed, Zanca says, "I think a lot of people would like a mixture of the state playing a more beneficial role in their lives and also the ability to be independent, to be private, and to get a taste of capitalism, which I think a lot of people haven't really had."
On the controversial issue of Uzbekistan's use of child labor, he says he did see children picking cotton in the fields but didn't witness any of the horror stories of them being coerced into it. At the time, he says, "it really didn't register with me that this was a terrible thing to be doing to the kids."
The children were out of school for maybe a month...but the kids would come out for half a day and, to my mind, it was somewhere between play time and not really what you wanting to be doing, which was picking cotton. But I didn't see it as the way it's presented sometimes, which is, oh my God, these children are facing the lash, or they're marched out to these fields. So I'm not trying to make light of it as I think it's a very serious issue and I certainly think the state should do a lot more to ensure that it's not happening and they're not closing down schools.
I think what it would take ultimately to stop that is that you need enough hands to pick cotton. Or you need enough mechanization to be harvesting the cotton so you're not people-dependent. But I think since the mid-1990s Uzbekistan has gone in the direction of manual labor rather than mechanized labor.
International human rights organizations have long criticized Uzbekistan for allowing children to work in the fields picking cotton
, although it is not always clear whether they have been taken away from their studies to work. Doctors, teachers, and university students are also drafted into work around harvest time. Some international clothing companies have boycotted Uzbek cotton over the issue of child labor.
-- Luke Allnutt