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Uzbekistan: about farmers committing suicide [blog]

The latest tendencies indicate that the reforms in the agricultural sector are taking place as promised but the attitude of the government officials toward the farmers have not changed much. The government representatives be they senior Cabinet ministers or local prosecutors are still violating farmers’ rights at will while denigrating treatment and blaming farmers for everything that goes wrong during the harvesting season are still the norm of the day.

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This post is published in the “Opinion” section. The author wished to remain anonymous.

The year 2018 was one of the most difficult years for most of the Uzbek cotton farmers. Authorities admit that throughout the year farmers had to grapple with various difficulties including inconvenient weather, shortage of irrigation water, unprecedented plague of pests and the delays in the growth of cotton that caused crop failures in many regions. As a result many farmers failed to fulfill their cotton production targets.

In Uzbekistan the government still dictates farmers what to harvest and more importantly how much to harvest. Photo by Dmitry Lebedev/Kommersant.ru

Despite the existence of these seemingly extenuating circumstances the state machinery has been unforgiving to the farmers so far. Numerous reports coming from all over the country indicate that the officers of the Compulsory Implementation Bureau (CIB) under Prosecutor’s Office, newly formed agency that ensures timely payment of all dues, have been tasked to extract compensation from farmers who have failed to deliver on their cotton targets.

Heartbreaking stories of farmers’ properties and personal assets being confiscated are galore.
According to some reports, quite a number of hapless cotton farmers have even been put to jail pending payment of government imposed compensations and penalties.  On top of that, the “truant farmers” also run the risk of being deprived of their land for failing to meet harvest targets. Tragically, few have chosen to commit suicide rather than face further deprivation.

In Uzbekistan the government still dictates farmers what to harvest and more importantly how much to harvest. Cotton or white gold as Uzbek people call it remains the main cash crop. Lucrative cotton export business is monopolized by the state controlled companies while the farmers for decades were paid only a small fraction of international cotton prices, perhaps not even enough to break even at the end of the harvesting season.

Only after the change of government in 2016, the current reformist President Shavkat Mirziyoyev admitted that cotton purchase prices needed to increase in order to make cotton growing profitable for the farmers. 

Putting his words into action President Mirziyayev increased government fixed cotton purchase price by almost 95% in 2018, however, domestic prices still remain very low compared to what cotton can sell internationally.

Undoubtedly, low domestic purchase prices paid to farmers are one of the root causes for most of the farmers’ woes and the main reason why it necessitates government’s deep involvement in the agricultural sector through reliance on predominantly coercive and other propagandistic methods.

The latest trend initiated by the authorities is to make the farmers take oath promising to “remain faithful to the country, make great contribution to its development and refrain from wrongful deed”. The oath taking ceremony of the farmers, which was started in the Sirdarya province of Uzbekistan by local administration, came under heavy criticism from the public.

Senator Maqsuda Vorisova: “… to improve cotton yields the local authorities must tackle systemic problems in the agricultural sector rather than engage in populist and propagandistic activities aimed at scoring brownie points in the eyes of the leader of the country”. www.uz24.uz (Photo: xs.uz)

Senator Maqsuda Vorisova was one of the few senior office holders who openly questioned the effectiveness of these oath taking ceremonies by the farmers in resolving the complex problems that currently exist in the agricultural sector. According to Senator Maqsuda Vorisova, to improve cotton yields the local authorities must tackle systemic problems in the agricultural sector rather than engage in populist and propagandistic activities aimed at scoring brownie points in the eyes of the leader of the country.

In particular, Senator Vorisova identified certain problems in this sphere. For instance, lack of technical knowledge of the farmers, outdated agricultural equipment, inability of the farmers to properly assess the meleorative requirements of the land, shortage of qualified agronomists, the sad state of affairs with the supply of seeds, absence of knowledge related to irrigation methods among farmers and the overall unbalanced distribution of water as some of the main critical challenges facing the agricultural sector these days.

Farmers taking oath in Gulistan city of Sirdarya province, www.kun.uz

These negative trends in the agricultural sector are happening at a time when President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is trying to reform it by introducing cotton-textile clusters in rural areas in order to resolve the various problems which have been plaguing this important sector of economy for years. According to President Mirziyoyev, in the next three years government will make cotton growing profitable for farmers by partnering them with cotton-textile clusters. However, so far President’s clusterization efforts have yielded mixed results and perhaps helped to lay bare the various shortcomings of the existing system.

Most of the farmers jailed this year for failure to fulfil their cotton harvest quotas were participating in government’s pioneering cluster projects. For example, one farmer from Akkurgan district of Tashkent province, who was briefly jailed and then set free with a condition to close his outstanding debt to the cluster within a few days. According to him, the idea of cotton cluster is progressive in itself and cluster is a better partner to the farmer than the government, especially in allocating necessary funds to buy diesel or pesticides during the cultivation period. However, shortage of water and the unprecedented onslaught of the pesticide resilient pests destroyed his harvest and left him indebted to the cluster.

He further complained that the state agencies which are responsible for the supply of water and quality pesticides to farmers, including local prosecutors who are responsible for overseeing the process, failed to deliver on their obligations, but these days only the farmers are being held accountable and are made to pay by the same prosecutors for crop failures with hard cash. Prosecutors and other senior agricultural officials are getting away with much lighter punishments such as demotion or transfer to other senior positions elsewhere.

One of the early indications that this year there were serious shortcomings and mistakes in government’s handling of the agricultural sector was the firing on 29th October of Deputy Prime Minister Zoir Mirzaev, top government official in charge of the agricultural sector in Uzbekistan’s Cabinet. He famously ordered the local administration representatives and a few farmers to go knee-deep into the ditch full of water for failing to water the wheat field on schedule. Zoir Mirzaev’s functions have been temporarily transferred to Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General Otabek Murodov. 

Tashkent province Akkurgan district officials and farmers are ordered to go knee-deep into a ditch full of water allegedly by the former Deputy Prime Minister Zoir Mirzaev. Photo: uql.uz

For years the government of Uzbekistan under late President Islam Karimov extracted as much benefit as possible from the agricultural sector through exploitation of the farmers and with reformist President Shavkat Mirziyyev’s coming to power many farmers were hoping that Mirziyoyev, who used to handle agricultural sector under Islam Karimov, would implement long awaited reforms and lighten the burden carried by the farmers. 

The latest tendencies indicate that the reforms in the agricultural sector are taking place as promised but the attitude of the government officials toward the farmers have not changed much.
Most importantly, it was hoped that the long awaited justice will be served to the farmers by offering them commensurate remuneration to the value of their produce be it cotton or wheat that they have to grow every year.

The government representatives be they senior Cabinet ministers or local prosecutors are still violating farmers’ rights at will while denigrating treatment and blaming farmers for everything that goes wrong during the harvesting season are still the norm of the day.

Experience of 2018 shows that the newly formed clusters also failed to become the farmer’s true partners and genuine stakeholders in the successful harvesting of the cotton crop. Instead, they only became part of the punitive state machinery and as such they do not represent a true and long awaited reform of the system but rather increasingly look like another business project to further squeeze the framer.  

All these developments and tendencies indicate that the next year will be another tough year for many farmers, especially those whose lands are located at places susceptible to droughts and shortages of water. More fundamentally, if government continues to look at farmers as self-sacrificing servants of the state rather than profit seeking entrepreneurs, the systemic problems in the agricultural sector of the country will continue without change.