Cotton and Scarcity

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jan 15 08:28:28 MST 2003

David Schanoes wrote:
> The death knell to the slave- plantation system of cotton production in the
> US was social and not natural.  More precisely, ever increasing inputs of
> "capital", land and slave-labor, were required to maintain production, much
> less increase it.  The  relations of that production did not allow, could
> not afford to support those increasing inputs in infrastructure, land, or
> labor.

This looks at the whole question from the "straightjacket of production"
perspective that not only does not do justice to Marx's ideas about
agriculture, it would disarm socialism in the face of the environmental
crisis of the modern epoch.

Prior to the 1970s, and thereafter for some 'productivist' tendencies on
the left including the Spartacist League and Frank Furedi's RCP in Great
Britain, socialism was seen as the same kind of improvement over
capitalism as capitalism was over prior modes of production, from
feudalism in Europe to the chattel slavery of the South. Success was
measured in terms of labor productivity, etc.

Unfortunately, industrial techniques applied to agriculture do not work.
Let me repeat that. Industrial techniques applied to agriculture do not
work. The only thing that will work is a reorganization of society which
allows the metabolic rift between crops and their organic fertilizers to
be overcome. Within that context and only within that context do
improvements in labor productivity make sense. That is why the Communist
Manifesto calls for the reunification of town and country.

The USSR tried to apply industrial techniques to cotton production and
measured in terms of productivity, it was a huge success. However, the
ancillary ecological consequences have been a huge disaster. Unless we
take this into account, we will offer nothing better than the
bourgeoisie since these sorts of problems will kill us just as
effectively as if they were at the hands of private ownership.

The Washington Post, June 20, 1992, Saturday, Final Edition

A Death in the Desert: Soviet Plan Kills a Sea;
Asia's Aral Region Poisoned, Impoverished

BYLINE: James Rupert, Washington Post Foreign Service


On the bitter desert that used to be the floor of the Aral Sea, this
town's fishing fleet fulfills its tragic final mission.

The rusted, hollow hulls beached on salty dunes once sailed high above,
on the surface of a teeming lake that was Central Asia's fountain of
life. Thirty years ago, the Aral Sea was the size of West Virginia and
men hauled 160 tons of fish from it each day.

But in one of man's great devastations of nature, the Soviet Union has
for decades diverted the Aral's water to grow cotton in the desert. The
lake has shriveled into a lifeless lagoon, its shore now more than 20
miles from here. The Aral's destruction has marooned Muynak, its boats
and its giant fish cannery in a desert. In a desperate attempt at
survival, the cannery now packs fish hauled -- frozen -- more than 2,000
miles, from the Baltic Sea. It can get tin for cans only by bartering
scrap metal, so it sends its former fishermen out to the seabed to chop
up the boats they once sailed.

The Soviet political system, with its absence of public accountability,
was freer to create environmental disasters than the governments of most
industrialized nations -- and the ruin of the Central Asian watershed is
one of its worst. The Soviet cotton plan has not only destroyed the Aral
Sea. It has polluted and salinated Central Asia's rivers and farmlands,
made the weather more extreme, and impoverished and sickened millions of
its inhabitants.

But the worst news about Central Asia's environmental mess is that the
superpower that created it is not here to help clean it up. Political
power has passed from Moscow to the Central Asian republics, which lack
money, technical resources and political will to address the problem.

The destruction of the Aral Sea began with a Stalinist vision of paradise.

In the 1950s, planners in Moscow decided to divert the huge Syr and Amu
rivers into Central Asia's steppes and deserts to irrigate the world's
largest cotton belt. Some planners even sought to replace the Aral with
cotton and rice farms, according to Yusup Kamalov, an energy researcher
and environmentalist who told of having seen maps and pictures of that

"They decided that the sea was not necessary . . . that the value of the
cotton would be greater than the loss of the fish," he said.

In places, the plan produced, if not paradise, an image of development.
Powerful Communist political bosses, especially in Tashkent, the Uzbek
capital, shunted much of the cotton project's money into dozens of dams
and reservoirs in favored districts, creating jobs -- and assuring water
for future growth. But political leaders in downstream regions of the
Syr and Amu rivers say the more powerful jurisdictions upstream have
kept more water than they need and are exacerbating damage to the river
deltas and the Aral.

As much as 40 percent of the water diverted for irrigation never reaches
the fields, according to Philip Micklin, a geologist at Western Michigan
University who is the leading Western specialist on the disaster. The
water evaporates from reservoirs or seeps out of thousands of miles of
unlined canals dug through porous soil.

Fed by seepage and over-irrigation, water tables in many areas have
risen to the surface, often carrying subterranean salts that encrust
farmlands and leave them barren. Much of the desert along the 600-mile
Kara Kum Canal, in Turkmenistan, "has become a salty bog," Kamalov said.

 From the exposed Aral seabed, winds pick up increasing amounts of salt
dust that Central Asian scientists say has been detected as far away as
the Himalayas.

By the 1980s, intensively farmed cotton land was losing productivity,
yet Moscow demanded unrealistic quotas of cotton. Central Asia's
state-run farms poured as much as 530 pounds of fertilizer per acre on
the land each year, compared with the Soviet average of 27 pounds.
Fertilizers, pesticides and defoliants used on cotton each year
contained an average of 48 pounds of poisonous chemicals per acre,
according to Soviet press reports.

In the rush to produce the demanded cotton, officials for years allowed
aerial spraying of pesticides and defoliants while workers were in the
fields. Workers interviewed throughout the Aral watershed said they had
been told that the spraying was safe but that the chemicals caused them
dizziness and headaches.

Much of the chemicals is washed back into the rivers.

The poisoning of Central Asia's land, economy and people is seen most
clearly here in the Amu River delta, south of the Aral Sea. The delta is
the heart of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan that
is a political backwater, far from the center of power in Tashkent.

People here drink whatever the Amu River brings. Increasingly, it brings
toxic chemicals. In 1979, 32 percent of drinking water samples taken by
Karakalpakstan's immunological service were unfit for human consumption,
according to Amet Madreyimov, the service's director. "By 1989, it was
83.2 percent," he said.

"The ecological situation affects . . . illness, and what is happening
to us is literally an epidemic," said Madreyimov, whose office has
tracked illness and water quality for 13 years. As chlorides, sulfates
and salts in the water -- and in locally grown produce -- have risen, so
have hepatitis, other liver illnesses, cancer and anemia.

"We are finding pesticides and heavy metals in mothers' breast milk,"
said Oral Ataniazova, director of Karakalpakstan's institute of women's
and children's medicine.

But because of the region's poverty, Ataniazova keeps that news a secret
from many patients. She urges wealthy women to boil water to make infant

"But I'm afraid to talk about it in the villages, because they take
their water straight from the canals" and cannot afford fuel to boil it.
"Making formula with that would be worse, so I tell them to
breast-feed," Ataniazova said heavily.

Infant mortality is close to 100 per thousand in some districts of
Karakalpakstan -- a rate comparable to those of Uganda and Nigeria and
10 times the U.S. average. Karakalpakstan's rates of miscarriage and
death of women in childbirth are among the highest in the former Soviet
Union, Ataniazova said.

Poverty often breeds anger. But the people of the Aral Sea region seem,
more than anything, fatigued by the combination of economic collapse and
environmental destruction.

At the Bakhitli State Farm, 75 miles southeast of Muynak, Parakhat Aliev
welcomed visitors to Brigade No. 4 -- a collection of 24 families who
live in two- or three-room mud-brick houses. There are no telephones or
toilets in the homes and only salty well water. Development has brought
electricity for bare light bulbs and a television -- and gas for
sputtering stoves.

Aliev, 32, apologized for the salty taste of the tea he served his
guests: "We cannot put milk in it because it will curdle. But there's no
milk anyway."

"We live like Robinson Crusoe," Aliev said, smiling for a moment. Then
his face and voice fell in resignation.

"Actually . . . this is not life," he said. "We simply exist."

Aliev described weather changes caused by the Aral's shrinkage that
sounded like a scientist describing another planet: "In the summer, the
temperature gets up to 104 degrees and we have salt storms that sweep in
off the dry seabed. It stings. You can't even open your eyes."

The Karakalpak Academy of Sciences confirmed Aliev's assessment that the
loss of the Aral, whose huge volume of water moderated the weather, has
cut two months off the region's growing season.

"At least 80 percent of Karakalpakstan's land is salinized," academy
president Sabir Kamalov said, "and its productivity is cut [by] anywhere
from 20 percent to 70 percent."

At a salinized farm near the town of Chimbai, Turehbai Telegenov, 37, an
unemployed accountant, was doing the best he could. He and his wife, who
is often sick with anemia, struggled to raise a fence around their
half-acre plot as their four children played in the dirt and salt crust.
Telegenov said he would plow up the crust and hope that his well water
would be fresh enough to wash away the salt before he planted vegetables
for the coming summer and winter.

But even Telegenov's hopes were driven by a lack of choices.

"We have to live somehow," he said. "Where else would we go? . . . I
don't think people would welcome us anywhere else."

In post-Soviet Central Asia, there appears little chance of reversing
the decline that Soviet planning began. At least in the Soviet period,
Moscow's water ministry imposed quotas for water use on each republic.

"Now there is no way to agree on water use," Kamalov said. "We need 25
to 30 cubic kilometers of water to reach the Aral each year just to hold
it at its current level. But each republic is holding on to the maximum
amount of water . . . as they learned under the Soviet system."

"They're killing us," he added.

The Uzbek government "says there is no excess water," but "in every
district there are reservoirs and lakes for fishing and recreation,"
Kamalov said. "That water belongs to the Aral."

Uzbekistan's water minister, Rim Giniyatullin, was unavailable for an
interview but has said Uzbekistan uses its water efficiently. His
government is pursuing a plan to clean the Amu River by building canals
along each bank to shunt polluted irrigation runoff directly into what
remains of the Aral.

Government officials and maps of the project say there are no plans to
purify the runoff.

"It would be too expensive for us," said an Uzbek Water Ministry
official who asked not to be identified.

"They have given up on us and the Aral," Kamalov said. "They want to
keep the clean water for themselves, and turn the Aral into a sewer."


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