[Marxism] Old Farming Habits Leave Uzbekistan a Legacy of Salt

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 16 11:46:59 MDT 2008

NY Times, June 15, 2008
Old Farming Habits Leave Uzbekistan a Legacy of Salt

KHUJAYLI, Uzbekistan — Salt crunches underfoot like frosty soil on this 
bare stretch of land in western Uzbekistan.

“Thirty years ago, this was a cotton field,” said a 61-year-old farmer 
who has lived near this city all his life. “Now it’s a salt flat.”

Uzbekistan, a land-locked country that was once part of the Soviet 
Union, is home to one of the biggest man-made disasters in history. For 
decades its rivers were diverted to grow cotton on arid land, causing 
the Aral Sea, a large saltwater lake, to lose more than half of its 
surface area in 40 years.

But old habits are hard to break, and 17 years after the Soviet Union 
collapsed, cotton is still king and the environmental destruction 
continues unabated, cutting into crop yields. Uzbekistan is the world’s 
second-largest cotton exporter after the United States, drawing a third 
of its foreign currency earnings from the crop, but that status seems 
increasingly threatened by corruption, poor planning and the degradation 
of cropland.

Far less money is spent now on maintaining the vast networks of water 
drainage and irrigation that crisscross the country than was expended 
under Communism. Authorities spend about $12 per hectare on maintenance 
(a hectare is around two and a half acres), down from $120 per hectare 
in Soviet times, according to the International Water Management 
Institute. Blocked drainage pipes push salt levels up, damaging the land 
and dragging crop yields ever lower.

A United Nations report in 2001 estimated that 46 percent of 
Uzbekistan’s irrigated lands have been damaged by salinity, up from 38 
percent in 1982 and 42 percent in 1995.

“The delivery system is dilapidated, the drainage system is failing,” 
said one foreign expert, who asked that his name not be used because he 
has to work with Uzbek officials. “It is a big problem.”

How that has affected cotton production is a difficult question. Cotton 
and its production are ensnared in politics, so national statistics on 
it are scarce. But a pattern of decline in the industry was evident in 
three regions based on local figures provided to The New York Times.

In Karakalpakstan, the region that contains what is left of the Aral 
Sea, the total area of land under cultivation has dropped by 14 percent 
since 1991, according to local statistics. In the Bukhara region in the 
south, land planted with cotton has declined by 15 percent in the past 
eight years, and in Jizzax, a region in central Uzbekistan, 15 percent 
of the cultivated land has become too salty to farm.

In Manghit, a small city near Khujayli, an early sign of saltiness came 
in the 1980s when mushrooms that had grown along the banks of the mighty 
Amu Darya River began to disappear, a local farmer recalled. Soil that 
used to grow 4.5 tons of raw cotton, measured with seeds and stems, per 
hectare now produces 2.5 tons, and in some places as little as 1.3 tons, 
said the farmer, who asked that his name not be used because Uzbek 
authorities frown on people speaking to foreign journalists.

“When you see this salt, sad, dark thoughts take you,” he said, 
explaining that the salt is what is left when water evaporates after 
intense irrigation. “Nothing grows on salty land. It’s like standing on 
a graveyard.”

Uzbekistan’s environmental problems date from the 1950s, when Nikita S. 
Khrushchev ramped up industrial agriculture, diverting river flows into 
a vast new maze of industrial-size canals. Slowly, the land began to change.

The farmer in Khujayli recalled a car trip with his father in the winter 
of 1954 near the city of Muynoq that began with a crossing of miles of 
Aral Sea ice. Now the shore is more than 50 miles away from the city. In 
the 1970s, his grandfather’s apricot trees died. Salt eats away at shoes 
here and turns bricks white. “For so many years we raped the land,” said 
the farmer. “This is the result.”

Sharing dwindling water resources is a maddening post-Soviet puzzle. 
Central Asia, once a single part in the Soviet machine, is now five 
countries with competing interests. Uzbekistan, the most populous, 
depends on its neighbor Kyrgyzstan for water. This year will be dry, 
Uzbek farmers and officials said, because Kyrgyzstan used more of its 
water than usual to generate electricity for heat last winter, which was 
unseasonably cold.

Environmental woes, however, are only part of the problem. Uzbekistan’s 
farming industry is still largely frozen in its Soviet past. Though the 
industry was rearranged several years ago to break the Soviet-era 
collective farms into private plots, the price paid for cotton is still 
set by the government, as are the quotas for how much to grow. The state 
price is set at less than one quarter of the world market price.

As yields decline and government prices remain low, farmers say that 
profits are increasingly elusive, and in some areas farmers have begun 
to abandon their fields. One farmer in Jizzax said he had stopped 
farming one parcel that had grown too salty, and he drove with a 
reporter past abandoned fields that stretched as far as the eye could 
see, more than 700 acres, he said.

As in Soviet times, production plans are not closely coordinated with 
the realities on the ground, and in Jizzax the local authorities, whose 
jobs depend on fulfilling quotas, have started to force bad fields — 
about a third of the cultivated land area in the region, according to 
local statistics — onto state institutions such as the post office, the 
state pension fund and schools, three farmers there said. Those, in 
turn, are forced to farm the land or to pay cash to satisfy the quota.

“Jizzax is an experiment,” said one of the farmers, who asked that his 
name not be published to avoid trouble with local officials. He provided 
a document for a plot of land that had been abandoned by a farmer and 
was now the responsibility of a local school. Farmers who did not meet 
quotas were fined and even taken to court, as was the case in April with 
89 farmers.

“Farmers have no rights,” he said. “They are just ordered around by the 

The farmers who are fined must pay with cash, which forms the heart of a 
cycle of corruption that has enriched officials for generations. Those 
officials, envied and vulnerable to charges of corruption, change with 
the seasons: In Jizzax, there have been five heads of the main cotton 
processing factory since 2000, the farmers said.

Some farmers violate the government’s rules and plant crops other than 
cotton, a practice that has been encouraged by foreign experts who say 
that crop rotation will allow the land to rest. But the government has 
often prohibited other crops, not wanting to suffer declines in cotton, 
and farmers grow other things at their own risk. This spring in 
Tajikistan, a neighboring country that also relies on cotton, farmers 
were growing watermelons on the sly, as though they were crops of 
illicit opium poppies.

“We are destroying ourselves,” said the 61-year-old farmer in Khujayli. 
“Why are we planting cotton, and what are we getting from it? We never 
ask those questions.”

The government is starting to acknowledge the problem, and last year it 
issued an order that will set up a fund for drainage improvements. The 
World Bank is also financing a program to improve drainage.

Some experts argue that if irrigation is managed properly, the soil in 
most of the country can still be productive. Wheat yields, they say, 
have increased sharply in the past decade, which is evidence of soil 
fertility. In a study of 12 farmers in the Khorezm region over four 
years, Kirsten Kienzler, a doctoral student at the Center for 
Development Research of the University of Bonn, said their cotton and 
wheat harvests were not declining.

She argued that farmers were still steeped in the Soviet system, in 
which the state did everything, and while it is true that they do not 
receive world prices for cotton, they are also not paying world prices 
for fuel, fertilizer or water, which are subsidized by the state.

Even so, the state still owns the land, and farmers said they were leery 
of committing to large projects while they remained renters. A farmer in 
the Bukhara region said that he was no longer breaking even, since fuel 
prices jumped in the past few years, and that he secretly hoarded cotton 
to sell on the black market to pay his bills.

“I am stealing from myself,” he said, gesturing at a storage room piled 
high with illicit cotton. “Soon I’ll have to sell these,” he added, 
snapping the waistband of his sweat pants.

David L. Stern contributed reporting from Tajikistan.

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