Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Uzbekistan: A Cotton Plantation State

On my trip to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, I learned for the first time about the forced labor program in Uzbekistan.  One-third of the world's cotton is exported from Uzbekistan, and much of the country's population, including children, is compelled to pick it under appallingly harsh conditions:
Instead of using machines to harvest cotton, as is done in other major cotton exporting countries, Uzbekistan's government uses children. Every autumn state officials shut down schools, and send students, together with their teachers, to the cotton fields. Tens of thousands of children, some as young as seven, are forced to undertake weeks of arduous labour for little or no financial reward. Headmasters are issued with cotton quotas and made to ensure that students pick the required daily amount. Children who fail to pick their target of cotton are reportedly punished with detentions and told that their grades will suffer. Those who refuse to take part can face academic expulsion. 
Fishing boats lie stranded on the dried bed of the Aral Sea
 A human rights disaster, the Uzbek cotton industry is an ecological disaster as well.  The Aral Sea, once one of the four largest lakes in the world, has been drained to barely 50% of its volume to provide irrigation for cotton.  The nation's fishing industry has been destroyed, and the legendary Tugai forests are reduced to between 15% and 20% of their original acreage.  Meanwhile, it's estimated that 60% of the water is lost through leaks and evaporation.

An international campaign led by the Responsible Sourcing Network, a project of As You Sow, is calling on a boycott by retailers of Uzbek cotton, and at least 60 major companies have signed on. (The list of boycotting companies--as well as those that still use Uzbek cotton--is here.)

UPDATE: The Uzbek government filed a claim of copyright infringement to take down this blog entry. I've changed the picture to one from the Environmental Justice Foundation. If Uzbekistan takes it down again, I will countersue.

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