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Your H&M pants, courtesy Karakalpak child labor and the dying Aral Sea

Written by on Friday, 21 December 2012
Photoblog, Politics and Society, Uzbekistan
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In the Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is part of the Republic of Uzbekistan since the collapse of the USSR, authorities are once again forcing child labor on the cotton fields. In this region of one of the worst ecological disaster in the world and bad economical crisis, child labor aggravates the state of the Karakalpaks.  

Headed by Elena Urlaeva, the activists of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan reported that from September to December in the areas of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan there is continued use of child labor on the cotton fields. For example, in late October, activists saw elementary school students working on the fields of villages in Kashkadarya, and underage students working on the fields of many regions of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan. Many children are severely ill and exhausted by the long hours of hard labor; they are not provided with health care, adequate food, and accommodation. Children work in conditions of fear and oppression, which is reflected in their psyche. This Fall, fortunately, the use of children to gather the harvest cotton has lessened from previous years.

In connection with the exploitation of children, many countries have long refused to buy Uzbek cotton. Nevertheless, on October 18, during the annual International Uzbek Cotton and Textile Fair, 38 countries have agreed to buy approximately 670 thousand tons of Uzbek cotton [Ed.: Not only countries, but also at least one major global firm, H&M, who is now coming under pressure to renounce Uzbekistani cotton.]

Child labor has traditionally been applied in spring and summer of this year as well. According to a published report, released by the Expert Working Group, which is a non-governmental non-commercial network of independent Uzbek experts and researchers (who are engaged in studying the issues of relation between laws and public interests, fundamental human rights and freedoms, rule of law, democratization and liberalization and development of free market economy in Uzbekistan), it states that from the first days of May the Uzbek youth in schools (13-16 years old) and vocational high schools (16-18 years old) were forced to attend spring cotton cultivation activities in many Uzbek regions and Republic of Karakalpakstan. This type of work usually includes weeding and hilling of the ground and is not paid. The minors involved in this type of forced spring labor work from Monday to Friday from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m. Also on Saturdays and Sundays they work at the local cotton fields from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Thus on Saturdays the classes for these groups of children are cancelled.

The cotton harvests are controlled by a small group of people, while the population of Karakalpakstan lives in outrageous poverty and dilapidation. Forced labor, especially child labor, is widely used in the cotton fields; human rights activists use the term “cotton slavery” for it. The authorities suppress any forms of protest against the forced labor, since they do not want any change.

The well-known human rights activist of Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, reported after her trips to Karakalpakstan last year:

“As happens every spring, in May 2011 the students of the schools and vocational high schools of Karakalpakstan were transported to the cotton fields for weeding. There is no normal drinking water in the region; the meals are poor; the children look exhausted; some of the children are losing their hair. Many people are ill, especially with oncological and endocrinological diseases, but also with anemia. The Karakalpakstan people is dying along with the Aral Sea.”

Elena Urlaeva placed the responsibility for the tragedy on the government of Uzbekistan.
 
The Karakalpaks, one of the oldest nomadic peoples of Central Asia, have for many centuries lived on the shore of an Aral lake, which because of its size is known as the Aral Sea. Since time immemorial the lake was fed by the rivers Amudarya and Syrdarya. However, the Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Turkmens – the Asian peoples populating the areas around the upper parts of the rivers – began to use all their waters for irrigation in the mid-last century, which led to a fast shrinkage of the sea. It is already nine times smaller than it was.  

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, visiting the Aral Sea in 2010, said he witnessed one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters. In 2000 The Sunday Times Magazine portrayed Karakalpakstan as the worst place on earth.
 
Among the grave consequences of the shrinkage are hundreds of tons of poisonous saline dust carried by the wind from the dry bed of the Aral Sea. The dust contains pesticides and traces of the biological weapons the Soviet Army once developed on one of the islands of the sea. This dust settles in the area populated by the Karakalpaks, causing them to suffer severely physically and mentally.

Akhtam Shaymardanov, a well-known Uzbek environmentalist and human rights activist based in California, portrays the situation as “ecocide turning into genocide of the Karakalpaks” and pleads to save them. The Karakalpaks have suffered much more than the other local ethnic groups from the aftereffects of the ecological catastrophe, but they have been refused an equal share of the water.
 
Over half of the water of the rivers feeding the Aral Sea is used up by Uzbekistan’s current authoritarian regime of former Communist leader Islam Karimov. There are over 4 million hectares of irrigated land in Uzbekistan; most of it is used for cotton monoculture, which requires a lot of watering. There is no payment for water used for irrigation, and therefore no responsibility taken for its excessive use. The cotton irrigation method used in Uzbekistan is still primitive – it is furrow watering.
 
The activists Elena Urlaeva and Akhtam Shaymardanov think that, under the conditions of environmental disaster in the region, cotton growing should be allowed only if drip irrigation is used. Otherwise the cotton monoculture should be abandoned. With the high population growth and high prices for food, it is more beneficial to cultivate food crops.
 
Retired Professor Philip Micklin, of Western Michigan University, who dealt with the issue of the Aral Sea, spoke of the same thing. In the mid 1990s, he took part in an international conference in Uzbekistan and proposed growing other crops — grains, soybeans, fruits and vegetables — instead of cotton, because giving up the cotton monoculture would make it possible to send part of the water down to stabilize the level of the Aral Sea. Micklin has repeated this proposal in his many subsequent scientific articles. He also suggests reducing the size of irrigated lands, in order to reduce the amount of water used for irrigation. Micklin said,

“My view is that it is wise to reduce the area devoted to cotton and take lands not suited for cotton out of production, as has been done to a certain extent. Switching from cotton to other crops must be done slowly and carefully to avoid serious harm to the economy and the people involved in raising cotton. What is needed in Uzbekistan is serious reform of the agricultural sector to (1) give land ownership to the people farming it and allow them much more freedom to decide how and what they grow, (2) to raise the prices paid by the government to farms raising cotton, (3) to allow cotton farms to sell their product directly to cotton brokers rather than only to the government, (4) to end large scale forced child labor in the cotton raising industry. As you know major further reductions in cotton production are unlikely as it earns so much foreign currency for the government”.

In addition, zoologist Alexander Esipov, a scientist of the Institute of the Gene Bank of Flora and Fauna of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan and an executive director for science at the Chatkal State Nature Reserve, said,

“We need to plant more trees on the dry floor of the Aral Sea. They would keep some of the saline dust from blowing away. And tree planting in the area would provide jobs for the local population.

A way to fill the sea would be with water from the rivers. Let us imagine for a moment that river water is no longer needed to water the fields or to meet the needs of the populace. Then the entire flow from the rivers would drain to the sea as before. The level of water would slowly increase.  The longer this process continued, the slower the water level would increase; because as the surface area increases, the water evaporates more quickly. The water would take about 100 years to return to its former level, but because of agriculture and the needs of a growing population, this, of course, would be impossible. We need to develop the technology to conserve water while watering the fields.”

According to A. Shaymardanov, however, it is obviously in President Karimov’s interests not to restore the Aral Sea, but to shrink it even more. After all, where there are no living things, there are no ecological controls, either. And it is much easier to extract oil and gas from the sea floor after it has dried up. Approximately one third of all the Central Asian oil and gas deposits lie in Uzbekistan’s part of the existing Aral Sea. Russian and Chinese companies searching for and extracting Aral hydrocarbons also have an interest in the further shrinkage of the sea.
 
Karakalpakstan could secede from Uzbekistan through a Karakalpak referendum, but Uzbekistan’s authorities would hardly allow the autonomous republic to hold one, since they would risk losing this territory, which is so rich in oil and gas. Besides, the ethnic Karakalpak population is not large — a little over one million — and they are very dependent on the waters of the Amudarya. Tashkent can temporarily block the river or divert it for summer irrigation, using it as leverage so the Karakalpaks will have to remain a part of Uzbekistan.          
 
In Karakalpakstan there is another serious problem that is threatening the right to life and disrespect for human health. The Beruni Collector which was built in 1978 year by Soviet government, removes waste water from the field area of ​​about 40,000 hectares and each year resets to the Amudarya about two hundred and fifty million cubic meters of poisoned water. With these drainage waters the Amudarya annually receives millions of tons of salt and thousands of tons of toxic chemicals — the remnants of fertilizers used in agriculture. This water is suitable only for irrigation of salt-tolerant plants — saxaul forests. Sadly, Amudarya water is no longer safe to drink, yet hundreds of thousands of people living downstream in Karakalpakstan still drink it. To rescue people, conduit with pure water from the Syrdarya must be carried out. This would remove the tension in the Aral Sea region. And Karakalpakstan would stop depending so much on the Amudarya water. It is very crucial to remedy this problem, because it is not about the Karakalpak nation only, but about the whole territory of the Aral Sea.

Author’s note: This is an updated version of an article I published in the San Francisco-based Russian-language newspaper Kstati. The photographs were taken by Alexander Esipov.

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