President Shavkat Mirziyoev has ordered the abolition of a decades-old state quota system for cotton crops, a major change that rights activists said should help end the Uzbekistan's longtime problem with forced labor.
The decree, signed by Mirziyoev on March 6, cancels quotas beginning in 2020 for the cultivation and sale of cotton.
The order also removes obligations on farmers to participate in cotton production, which experts say should give them more flexibility to plant other cash crops.
Cotton exports have long been a major source of revenue for Uzbekistan stretching back decades into the Soviet era, when central planners ordered wide-scale cotton cultivation, despite the country's hot, arid climate.
But mandatory production quotas have led to labor abuses, with many Uzbeks being forced to help do the back-breaking labor of picking the crops. Children have also been forced to pick cotton.
An international coalition of rights groups known as the Cotton Campaign has for years lobbied the Uzbek government to do more to stop forced labor. It has also pressured major clothing brands to prevent their products from utilizing cotton picked with forced labor.
The U.S. government had previously imposed restrictions on the import of Uzbek cotton goods.
Lynn Schweizfurz, an advocate with the Uzbek-German Forum on Human Rights, welcomed the abolition of the state quota system, saying it would give farmers more freedom to plant crops of their choosing.
But she also warned that the Uzbek system of 'clusters' -- a system aimed at making the country’s agriculture more efficient and modern -- could end up hurting farmers.
The International Labor Organization also hailed the change, calling it a "historic development."