Uzbek Farmers Punished for Rejecting Cotton

FERGANA, Uzbekistan, May 4, 2007 (ENS) - Farmers and officials in eastern Uzbekistan are likely to face criminal charges for growing crops that they can sell, instead of the cotton and wheat demanded by the state.

The case highlights the problems facing farmers in Uzbekistan, who in theory belong to the private sector but in practice are tied into Soviet-style rules under which they are bound to grow cotton and grain and sell it to the state at artificially low prices.

The prosecutor's office in Kuva district in the densely populated Fergana Valley is investigating a number of farm heads, as well as several officials from local government offices concerned with land and agriculture issues who are being blamed for letting farmers get away with it.

"A preliminary investigation is under way, and depending on the findings, a decision will be reached on whether to press criminal or administrative [civil law] charges," said assistant district prosecutor Farhod Haidarov in remarks broadcast on television on April 15.

The farmers are suspected of having breached contracts drawn up by government requiring them to grow a certain quota of Uzbekistan's two strategic crops. Cotton is a major earner of export dollars for the government, while wheat is grown as part of a strategy of making the country self-sufficient.

field

Cotton field in Uzbekistan's fertile Fergana Valley (Photo courtesy Galenfry Singer)
The investigation was launched after a routine inspection by the Kuva prosecutor's office to ensure that local farmers were doing their bit to meet official production targets.

The prosecutor's office cited one case where 12 farms were contracted to grow cotton over an area of 40 hectares, but 22 hectares of this land were found to have been planted with strawberries, onions and other crops which the farmers could easily sell at local markets.

Another farm, called Bahor, was ordered to set aside 20 hectares and produce 25 metric tons of wheat grain on it, even though its main business is not crops for human consumption, but raising livestock and growing enough fodder to sustain its animals. In the event, the farm was discovered to have put just six hectares under wheat and used the spare land to grow marketable fruit and vegetables.

The authorities are furious with the farms, which they fear will make Kuva district, and in turn the larger Fergana administrative region, fail to fulfil this year's cotton and grain quotas. The central government in Tashkent regularly sacks local governors for not "fulfilling the plan."

The prosecutor's office intends to make an example of the farmers if they are charged. But it is unclear whether the authorities have the legal powers to do so it is not a criminal offense to plant other crops instead of cotton. And a law on monopolies prohibits the state authorities from interfering in independent commercial entities, such as these farms.
map

Map of Central Asia showing Uzbekistan in yellow. (Map courtesy IWMI)
A former regional official, who did not want to be named, explained the paradox between the free market that exists on paper and the planned economy that still dominates in reality.

"A free market economy has been declared a priority," he said. "But the authorities flagrantly violate the principles of this by forcing farmers to sign contracts from which they will see no profit."

Farmers are left in penury because the government pays them a pittance for the cotton and grain it forces them to grow, and they are not allowed to sell their quotas privately.

"The low state purchase prices for grain and cotton mean that farmers lead a miserable existence," said a farm boss in the Kokand region, also in the Fergana Valley.

Payments for these crops are deposited in farmers bank accounts, often after a long delay. Even when it arrives, farmers find it hard to access the money, as one man found out to his cost.

"Last year, I was prevented from transferring money from my account to pay the institute where my son is studying," he said. "Even though I had enough money in the account, I was forced to take out a loan at a high rate of interest."

By contrast, fruit and vegetables can be quickly turned into hard cash, and will sell at a realistic market price.

vegetables

Woman sells vegetables at the Margilan Sunday Market in the Fergana Valley (Photo courtesy Galenfry Singer)
"It's more profitable for a farmer to grow cucumbers or grapes on an area of one-fifth of a hectare than to have cotton over 20 hectares," said the farm boss in Kokand region.

Another reason why farmers are unhappy about growing cotton and wheat is that government targets are rigid and do not take the vagaries of weather into account.

Last year, the crops fared badly and some Fergana Valley farmers failed to meet their targets. They were called into local prosecutors' offices, where they were threatened and ordered to make up the shortfall at any cost.

"I am a woman, but I was summoned to the prosecutor's office after 11 pm one night," recalled the head of one farm. "After this, I had to find the right people to help me to fulfill the plan."

"Finding the right people" usually involves a combination of ingenuity and bribery. Some farmers buy extra wheat or cotton to make up the numbers, and then pay off staff at the government purchase office to issue a receipt showing that they have met their target.

This comes at a cost - farmers who resorted to this measure last year said the amount they got from the government was half what they had paid for the crops they bought on the open market.

But even this may be worth it given the skewed economics of Uzbek agriculture. Farmers have realized that the opportunity cost of growing high-earning cash crops more than offsets the bribes and other outlays involved in topping up their cotton or grain quota.

As a result, the authorities have been forced to apply even more punitive measures than usual this year, although local commentators question whether prosecutions really represent an effective incentive for the country's agricultural producers.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR. The people quoted in this story have not been named, out of concern for their security.}