But a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) says the cotton "monoculture" has more serious hazards as well.
The author of the report, ICG analyst Michael Hall, said his research found that thousands of students in the region are forced to work during the cotton harvest, in unsafe conditions and for little money. The massive irrigation needed for cotton production also continues to cause serious environmental problems.
Hall discussed his findings at a presentation in New York sponsored by the Open Society Institute. He said the main cotton-producing countries of the region -- all among the poorest of the former Soviet states -- should seek alternative crops before more daunting economic difficulties arise.
"The governments of these three states -- Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- remain very heavily involved in the agricultural sector. Even in instances when on paper, policies or state orders have been abolished, in fact local governments in particular very often would dictate to farmers what they should plant. So it's a political issue as well [as an economic one] -- an issue of political control," Hall said.
Uzbekistan is the fifth-largest cotton producer in the world and the most cotton-dependent among the three Central Asian producers.
World Bank estimates put Uzbekistan cotton-fiber exports in 2003 at $883 million. It is the country's second-largest export commodity after gold. With more than one-third of its total economic output derived from agriculture, Uzbekistan is also the most agrarian of the Central Asian cotton producers.
The ICG report warns that Central Asia's exclusive dependency on cotton has blocked the planting of other crops and affects food supply in all of the producer countries. Tajikistan, for example, can produce only half the cereals and grains needed to feed its population.
Hall said the countries compensate by selling cotton to buy food -- an inefficient and precarious way, he said, to feed a nation. "When you have a populace that is not being paid fair wages for a certain crop, and when you have an economy that is geared towards this crop, the only system that is going to get the crop harvested is going to be a system of very, very tight social and political controls where the entire population in rural areas is a potential captive labor force. And this is exactly what you see in parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and in Turkmenistan," Hall said.
Hall's report says the monoculture mentality poses acute problems now due to very poor conditions in the world cotton industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the consumption of raw cotton continues to move from high-labor-cost to low-labor-cost countries. At the same time, it says, the consumption by developed countries is declining.
The embassies of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan in Washington did not respond to RFE/RL inquiries for comment on the report and their governments' cotton policies.
Wayne Merry, a senior associate at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council, told RFE/RL that despite a steady fall in global prices, Central Asia's cotton producers have never shown any inclination to collaborate among themselves.
"For the most part, in an area like a commodity export like cotton, the countries -- [Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan] -- have been very competitive with each other, meaning that they've tended not to work in cooperative or collaborative way to try to maintain prices. They've tried to operate on a purely national basis," Merry said.
In early days of independence, Uzbek officials were critical of the Soviet cotton-monoculture policy. Nearly a decade ago, the Uzbek government decided to diversify agriculture and grow grain instead, primarily wheat.
Officials reasoned the step was needed as a way to promote national security through the economic self-sufficiency. But the initiative failed. The population was not buying locally grown wheat and other cereals, which were poor in quality. Eventually, Uzbekistan returned to cotton.
Merry said there have been attempts since to diversify crops. But so far, the cotton supporters have always had the upper hand. "Uzbekistan has the most diversified economy in the region, but [President Islam] Karimov's government has given a lot of priority to cotton and in many respects the cotton monoculture has been one of the worst things that Uzbekistan inherited from the Soviet central planning system," he said.
During Soviet times, the processing of cotton fiber into cloth was done exclusively in the European part of the Soviet Union. Now Central Asia's cotton producers are trying to find ways to do some of this themselves -- to get better prices and sell not only raw material. Almost all of Central Asia's cotton is sold as raw fiber for low prices.
Michael Hall of the ICG said that Uzbekistan has made more consistent efforts than Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to develop facilities for cotton processing.
According to the World Bank, Tajikistan also heavily relies on cotton production. Raw cotton fiber is the country's second-largest export commodity after aluminum. But in absolute numbers, Uzbekistan's cotton output outsizes Tajikistan's by a factor of eight to one.
With more than 80 percent of its revenue derived from exports of natural gas and oil, Turkmenistan is much less dependent on cotton than either Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. But the ICG report says in Turkmenistan's cotton-producing areas, the extensive use of student and child labor during the harvest is as prevalent as it is in the other two countries.