Farmers in Uzbekistan's tightly controlled agriculture sector have been ordered by state authorities to grow cotton since the waning days of the Soviet Union.
But this year, under an order from President Shavkat Mirziyoev, some are now cultivating a crop they've never grown before -- red-hot chili peppers.
Reluctant new chili-pepper farmers in Uzbekistan's southern Qashqadaryo region say they've been forced into a potentially crippling situation.
That's because regional officials have not signed a contract to sell their harvests through ChiliUz, a new state firm set up to facilitate the government's chili-pepper decree.
One 47-year-old farmer in the region's Shahrisabz district, who asked not to be named because he feared "retaliation" from authorities for speaking out about the problem, says he and other chili-pepper farmers have also been ordered by district officials to find foreign buyers for their harvests.
With district officials expecting foreign buyers to pay three times the price chili peppers fetch in Uzbekistan, he says he may as well have been told to sell peppers on the moon.
"We have no idea how to find a foreign buyer because we've never done this before," he explains to RFE/RL. "We have always been told to grow cotton, and we've never been allowed to sell our cotton ourselves. That was always done by the state."
'What The President Ordered'
Farmers in the area say they received the orders when they were summoned to a June 5 meeting with district Governor Holbobo Bozorov, Deputy Governor Zaynidin Halilov, the district police chief, and the local prosecutor.
The farmers say they were told they had a July 1 deadline to meet the harvest and export targets.
"In that room, each farmer was instructed to harvest, as soon as possible, our recently planted chili-pepper seedlings and, also, to find buyers abroad," the 47-year-old farmer says. "Local entrepreneurs at the meeting were instructed to export $200,000 to $1 million worth of chili peppers."
"They said if this is not fulfilled, the administration would take away our right to farm on the land," he continues. "They said this is what the president ordered."
Having transplanted his state-supplied seedlings on April 10 to the 16 hectares of state land he is allowed to cultivate, he says he does not think the crop will be ripe for harvest until mid-July.
"Such things cannot be done by decree," he says.
A local economic-development official, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, confirmed that district officials met on June 5 with farmers and local entrepreneurs to discuss "chili-pepper production and export issues."
He said a total of 130 hectares of land in the Shahrisabz district had been planted with chili-pepper seedlings this year "for export."
But he denied farmers were ordered to establish their own export contacts.
"We just discussed plans about how to divide the land between farmers," the district official said. "These chili peppers were planted for export. This country needs hard currency. We explained this to every farmer. However, we never threatened to take away their right to farm the land. Our farmers are given full freedom."
In Uzbekistan's state-controlled agriculture sector, cultivatable land is not privately owned except for small garden plots.
The reluctant 47-year-old farmer in the Shahrisabz district says he received enough two-month-old chili-pepper seedlings from the district administration this spring to cultivate 13 hectares of his 16-hectare land allotment.
He says the seedlings were delivered under a loan contract with the state-owned Agrobank Uzbekistan.
Consistent with the way short-term agricultural loans are usually granted to Uzbek farmers, he never received money from the bank.
Instead, Agrobank Uzbekistan based the value of his loan on the price of the seedlings he received from a state supplier -- about 1,250 soms ($0.16) per seedling.
Usually, such loan contracts stipulate that farmers must turn over most of their harvests to the state firms that sell crops in the country and abroad.
Vegetable farmers are allowed to keep their harvest beyond the value of their loan to sell in local markets or for their own consumption.
In the case of chili peppers, the newly created ChiliUz provided seedlings and will collect pepper harvests this year from farmers in nine of Uzbekistan's 13 administrative regions.
But ChiliUz spokeswoman Zulaiho Musurmonova confirmed that the new company -- a subsidiary of the state fruit-and-vegetable trading company Ozbekoziqovqatxolding -- had nothing to do with chili peppers planted in the Qashqadaryo region.
"We do not have a contract with Qashqadaryo," Musurmonova told RFE/RL. "We are working with other regions by providing farmers with seedlings from India. We've planned to sell a kilogram of harvested chili peppers for 2,500 soms" ($0.33).
"If Qashqadaryo had signed a contract with us, we would buy all of their products, too. Therefore, the farmers wouldn't have to look for a foreign buyer," Musurmonova said.
May As Well 'Give Them Away'
That leaves the Qashqadaryo region's chili-pepper farmers in a conundrum.
If they are unable to find buyers, they will have to repay Agrobank Uzbekistan in cash for the seedlings they received from state suppliers earlier this year.
When the reluctant 47-year-old farmer in the Shahrisabz district adds his costs for tractor fuel, fertilizer, water, and herbicide, he says the price he can get for peppers in Uzbekistan makes the crop economically unfeasible.
Farmers' problems have been magnified further this year in other parts of Uzbekistan by water shortages that caused seedlings to shrivel up and die, and by a toxic Aral Sea salt storm that destroyed crops.
"I may as well give them away," he says, complaining that the system is pushing him toward destitution. "If I sell these peppers at the price offered in Uzbekistan, that's what I'm doing. I'm losing money."
"I don't want to grow cotton or chili peppers anymore," he says. "I want to grow beans because it takes much less water, and water shortages are a big problem. Beans are worth more to me."
The infrastructure of Uzbekistan's dysfunctional agriculture sector has focused on cotton production since the Soviet era -- including irrigation systems, farm machinery, and the layout of fields.
Years of irrigating cotton fields from the Aral Sea has created environmental catastrophes by draining away the sea water and intensifying salt deposits in farm soil -- reducing soil fertility and crop yields.
U.S. government researchers say that some Uzbek farmers who oversaw 32 hectares of state farmland in 1991 found, just a decade later, that cultivatable land in their allotments was reduced to as little as 4 hectares.
Even now, in an apparent effort to make cotton more profitable for the state, the government forces public-sector workers, doctors, teachers, and students -- including children -- to pick cotton at harvest time.
The notorious practice has led groups like Human Rights Watch to conclude as recently as May 2018 that Uzbekistan's economy is reliant on forced labor and child labor.
Experts have long advised Uzbekistan to diversify its agriculture away from cotton for the sake of long-term development.
To reduce Uzbekistan's reliance on imported food, authorities in 1998 began ordering a switch on some farmland from cotton to grain, mainly wheat. Within seven years, cotton production fell from making up nearly 40 percent of Uzbekistan's exports to about 20 percent.
But until the death of President Islam Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan's government remained reluctant to implement major infrastructure overhauls in agriculture because of the enormous investment required and the state's reliance on cotton export revenue.
In this context, Mirziyoev's chili-pepper order is seen as a baby step on the path toward diversification.
Critics warn, however, that such efforts, ordered from above and carried out by local officials, risk a repeat of Uzbekistan's recent pumpkin-farming fiasco.
Thousands of tons of pumpkins were produced in 2017 by Uzbek farmers under government pressure, but much of the crop was abandoned in the fields due to lack of demand.