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'White Gold' And Central Asia's Harvest Of Repression

A boy picks cotton in Uzbekistan's Tashkent region during the 2010 harvest.
A boy picks cotton in Uzbekistan's Tashkent region during the 2010 harvest.
It's that time of year again, when the harvest rolls around and authoritarian governments in Central Asia force adults and children to pick cotton despite an international outcry.

This year, as EurasiaNet reports, the news is that Uzbekistan has agreed to an inspection mission by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

"The ILO will be involved in the monitoring of the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan with the aim of preventing the use of child labor," spokesman Hans von Rohland confirmed by e-mail on September 12. Monitoring will start "in the next few days."

The Cotton Campaign, which works to end forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry, has welcomed the mission, but has expressed concern that the monitors will be accompanied by Uzbek officials, "whose presence will have a chilling effect on Uzbek citizens' willingness to speak openly with the ILO monitors."

Others agree. "It is essential that monitoring teams be comprised only of independent observers and not include any Uzbek officials," Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told EurasiaNet.

The Uzbek authorities have consistently denied reports that children are sent to the fields each year to pick cotton during harvests, despite video evidence by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service to the contrary. As Cotton Campaign puts it, the government "forces over a million children, teachers, public servants, and private-sector employees to pick cotton under appalling conditions each year. Those who refuse are expelled from school, fired from their jobs, and denied public benefits or worse."

Despite an international campaign -- including a video game simulating the life of an Uzbek cotton picker and a boycott of Uzbek cotton by dozens of apparel companies worldwide -- Uzbek cotton continues to be an important source of export earnings for the government of President Islam Karimov. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the sixth-largest producer and fifth-largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to a report by, accounting for 11.3 percent of Uzbekistan's export earnings in 2010-11.

Besides the fact that many are forced to work, conditions can be dangerous as well. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reports that, according to human rights activists, a female university student was electrocuted while picking cotton on September 9. Students are reportedly asked to sign a form by their schools that they are going voluntarily to pick cotton and that they must follow safety rules, meaning the government will not be responsible for death or injury due to negligence. Every year, about a dozen students die picking cotton.

In neighboring Turkmenistan, meanwhile, the export of "white gold" is tied to issues of sustainability. In a country that is largely desert, water for the thirsty cotton crop is brought in by canal from the Amu Darya River. Intensive use of the river's water is blamed for the drastic shrinking of the Aral Sea, and some predict that climate change could reduce the flow from the glaciers in the Pamir Mountains that feed the river.

WATCH: Cotton picking in Turkmenistan
Turkmen Cotton Picking In Lebap Province
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Sparring between Central Asian states over the river's water looks likely to continue, if not grow worse. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan's upstream hydropower plans will continue to be resisted by downstream agricultural users Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

As RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports, Turkmen cotton farmers are again having trouble meeting their official quotas, which they blame on a lack of water. While isolated Turkmenistan has not received the same level of attention as Uzbekistan, forced labor and child labor reportedly continue to be issues in the cotton harvest there as well.

-- Dan Wisniewski

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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