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Letter: Children picking Uzbek cotton

In your editorial concerning the circumvention of the retail boycott of Uzbek cotton (Delta Farm Press, Nov. 7, 2008) you mention that some of your peers consider “this a born-50-years-too-soon moment” and that when you were young you “spent a lot of Saturdays and after school time helping my grandfather pick his cotton in the 1950s,” implying that the situation in Uzbekistan is analogous to what many of your peers have been through.

As an American who has lived in Uzbekistan and whose wife was one of those kids who was forced to pick cotton, I wish to explain why what you experienced and what kids in Uzbekistan continue to experience are not the same:

Being forced by your parents or grandparents to pick cotton to help the family is not the same as a totalitarian police-state government forcing parents to send their young kids to a far-away cotton plantation for two months to help fill government coffers.

While kids do indeed get paid in Uzbekistan per kilo of cotton, you do not mention that they must pay the state for the cost of their room and board. While a few skilled kids are able to actually make a little money at the end of the harvest, the majority who are less experienced or less strong actually owe money to the state by the time the harvest is finished. This was the case with my wife and her three brothers, who not once were able to bring home any money for all their backbreaking work.

Generally the cotton plantations are far from where the kids live, often well over an hour’s drive. Most Uzbeks do not have cars, and transportation to and from these plantations is difficult to come by. So while you were a child, every night after work you probably had the opportunity to sleep and eat dinner with your family; these kids may not see their family at all for two months or more until the harvest is over.

The conditions in the cotton fields are more abhorrent than what you experienced. When my wife talks about her time in the fields, she talks about the abhorrent food, dirty drinking water (literally drinking from a muddy-brown irrigation runoff ditch for the entire harvest), dire accommodations (students packed shoulder-to-shoulder into cold, windowless, hornet-infested rooms), not being able to shower or bathe once for more than an entire month, hazing of students, harsh labor seven days a week, 12 hours a day that left her hands bloody and her back in pain, and a general lack of care about the students.

As an example, one year her appendix burst during the cotton harvest and despite her pleas for help no one was willing to take her to a hospital — administrators were more worried about meeting their quota. Were it not for an uncle who lived in a village nearby — who had to fight with the administration — and borrowed a car to take her back to a hospital in town, she would probably have died in that cotton field. Indeed, a young student from her group did die from a neglected burst appendix the very next year.

While I personally have not worked the cotton fields, I have seen the living conditions that these kids are subjected to and it appalled me, and has verified her claims.

Uzbekistan is one of the worst dictatorships in the world. The government forces farmers to sell their cotton to state-owned companies at very low prices. It then turns around and sells it on the international market at up to ten times the price the farmers receive for it.

Cotton sustains the Uzbek government and allows it to pay for its massive security services that allow it to oppress its population and keep it subservient to the state. There is no free speech, there is no free media, there is no freedom of expression, and there is no freedom of religion.

The police are not only very corrupt but are all-powerful as there is essentially no separation between the courts and the police. It is an oppressive atmosphere where people expect their phones to be tapped and their neighbors to be spies.

Three years ago the government massacred hundreds of protestors in the city of Andijan in what may have been one of the worst state-sanctioned killings since Tiannamen Square. Plenty of information can be found here:

So while I understand that many Americans have experienced hardship in the cotton fields while growing up, please remember that we live in America, not Uzbekistan. We live in a country where families generally have hope for a better future and where we can often decide the course of our own lives, not have the whims of an oppressive government dictate it to you.

Brian Schroeter
San Diego, Calif.

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