Perils of the Cotton Harvest in Turkmenistan's Toxic Fields

LONDON, UK, September 30.2005 (ENS) - With the annual cotton harvest underway in Turkmenistan, an army of laborers is once again forced to risk health and well being in an environment fouled by toxic agricultural chemicals.

Grown on around half of all irrigated land in Turkmenistan, cotton is one of the country’s most important exports.

Each year, President Saparmurat Niazov demands to see an increase in the harvest, and a whole array of chemical products are employed in an effort to ensure efficiency.

As a result, many of those pressured into gathering the cotton crop – including large numbers of women, students and children – experience respiratory problems.

Pregnant women – not exempted from this hard manual labour – are most at risk, often miscarrying and giving birth prematurely. Many children who do survive are born seriously ill.

The self-styled dictator Niazov – who prefers to be referred to as Turkmenbashi, or Leader of the Turkmen – continues to exert pressure to increase the cotton haul, demanding two harvests this season.

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Young girls in a Turkmenistan cotton field (Photo courtesy RPCV Madison)
Each year, students and schoolchildren are drafted in to help gather the crop on the big collective farms. Small-scale cotton growers complain that local officials threaten to destroy their livelihoods if they do not do the same.

“[The officials] went around all the houses and said that anyone who didn’t gather cotton wouldn’t be given seeds for next year, and that when the land was divided up in spring they would be given the most arid plots,” said Mahri, a farmer.

Officials also threatened to cut off water to existing plots of land, added Mahri, explaining that, “for a farmer this is the worst punishment”.

“I had to abandon all my housework and do everything at night because during the day we’re forced to gather the cotton,” said Ogulgerek, another farmer. “We have to work all day under the burning sun.

“Many of us... take along our small children, who we can’t leave at home alone. I breastfeed my four-month-old son and put him under a bush in the shade. But even [there] the child gets hot... and often his temperature rises at night.”

As part of the process of cultivating cotton in Turkmenistan, highly toxic defoliants are used to speed up the ripening process and dry out the plants.

During Soviet times, there were carefully enforced safeguards on the use of such substances, which can easily disperse in the air. These days, things are different.

“Our fields are treated with chemicals even when we are working in them,” said Dursun-Eje. “No one cares that we and our children breathe this in.”

A health ministry employee said that defoliants are purchased without the ministry exercising any control, and that the quantities used exceed recommended levels

“As a result, people develop complications in the form of edema of the respiratory tract, allergic rhinitis and allergic bronchitis,” said the official. “And these are only the visible problems – these toxins [also] affect the blood and it takes time for changes in cell structure to become apparent.”

“One thing is certain. The number of people suffering from diseases of the upper respiratory tract during the harvest and ripening of cotton increases by dozens of times. They are primarily women and children.”

Dursun-Eje says that the population of her village became ill after working the cotton fields.

“Our doctor told us that this was flu,” she said. “But it’s strange that this flu hasn’t gone away after four weeks and [that] everyone caught it at almost the same time, after the first time the fields were treated from the air. We are simply being swatted like flies!”

Mahri says the agricultural chemicals are also to blame for her eldest son’s asthma, which has left him dependent on medication.

To make matters worse, Turkmenistan’s rural population has had limited access to healthcare since Niazov announced the closure of all hospitals outside the capital, Ashgabat, earlier this year. Clinics continue to operate in the regional centers, but offer only basic health services.

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A field of cotton in Turkmenistan (Photo courtesy Government of Turkmenistan)
The government also continues to meddle in the health service in other ways. A civil society activist with a women’s rights organization in the Dashoguz region said doctors are under intense pressure to avoid giving diagnoses that might link patients’ health complaints to their work in the cotton fields.

As a result, doctors often use the term “acute respiratory disease” to fudge diagnoses of conditions such as conjunctivitis, bronchitis, persistent colds and laryngitis, which increase during the harvest season as a result of the use of chemicals.

“For a long time now [doctors have been] forbidden to give diagnoses according to the [actual] illness [from which a patient is suffering],” said the activist. “[Instead], there is a list of approved diagnoses that doctors [must use] to classify an illness.”

“It’s a vicious circle,” he concluded. “When we appealed to the authorities and outlined the situation, they asked us to provide documentary evidence. [This should consist of] diagnoses from doctors confirming that these diseases were the result of poisoning by toxic chemicals. But these diagnoses do not exist!”

Of those who take part in cotton harvest, pregnant women are particularly at risk of chemical poisoning.

“The job of gathering cotton in itself is not acceptable for pregnant women,” explained one doctor, who works in a village clinic. “There is the burning sun and the burden on the back and legs. And added to all this they also have to breathe in toxins which are used to treat the cotton.”

Many mothers-to-be who are exposed to the chemicals experience complications in their pregnancies, with miscarriages and premature births being commonplace.

“All rural children born during the cotton harvest suffer from anaemia and almost 80 percent of them have inflammation of the lungs,” added the same doctor. “Quite often these children are born right in the field, in unsanitary conditions.”

“In rural areas the child mortality rate is very high,” said an employee of an organization which deals with women’s reproductive health in Turkmenistan. “Children’s immune systems are very weak and can’t cope with this chemical attack.

“Almost every child born in the period from August to November suffers from allergies, often in a very serious form.”

Nazsoltan is seven months pregnant. “I cough constantly, like many of my relatives, and my arms and legs are severely swollen,” she said. “A blood analysis showed anaemia and a high level of allergens.

“The doctor says that my immune system is overloaded and there are complications with my kidneys. [He] advises me to stay at home and drink less liquid, otherwise there a danger of miscarriage or kidney failure.”