I never thought my Kiva Fellowship would deal so much with cotton, without actually dealing with cotton. Today one thing  Central Asia, especially Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are known for is cotton, if they are known at all (All make top 10 list of cotton exporters). In Tajikistan it is everywhere, with pictures of cotton and even statues of cotton, the state symbol also has cotton on it. Cotton has driven much of the history of Central Asia and Tajikistan. So one begins to wonder: how did cotton become such an important crop, and what has been its consequences?

In the early 1860′s, the Russian Tsar began a southern march. This time he didn’t march towards the Dardanelles in Turkey. He had spent the first few years of his reign dealing with the outcome of the last time Russia had done this. This time he marched towards the Silk Road. Many in England became agitated, worried that he was going to invade India, some in the Tsar’s own circle were advocating this very thing, but the reason for his southern march, and the eventual take over of what today is called “the Stans” was not India, it was cotton.

Cotton was a mainstay in the then Russian economy, and without it the economy would begin to falter. Before the 1860′s almost all of Russia’s cotton came from one source, the United States of America, specifically the south. But with the US Civil War and the successful Northern blockade of the South, the price of cotton skyrocketed and Russia had to look else where for its cotton production. Tsar Alexander II saw in the fertile valleys between the Oxus and the Jaxartes (today the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya) perfect land for new cotton fields.

Before then a bit of cotton was grown in the areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but after the Russians came in it rose to prominence in all five of the Stan’s. During the Soviet Union Central Asia became the Cotton mill of the USSR. Aided by Khrushev’s Virgin Lands campaign in Kazakhstan, and the influx of Russian and Ukrainian agriculture experts cotton production grew astronomically into the thousands of tons. Where as the Dunbass was producing coal, and the Urals iron ore, and Baku oil, Central Asia was churning out cotton.

Central Asian countries became monoculture countries, meaning they only really produced one thing, and that was cotton. Today cotton still tops the list of exports of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

The most visible consequence of this has been the environmental problems: the almost disappearance within my own lifetime of the Aral Sea, though it is now slowly (very slowly) growing back; and the toxic soil created from the destruction of the topsoil by the needy cotton combined with the pesticides sprayed in the Soviet Union (I’ve heard stories that this makes children sick, and may even kill some, especially in the area near the former Aral Sea).

In Tajikistan though cotton may have had a deadlier consequence. During the Soviet Union mountain villagers from the Garm Valley in north-eastern Tajikistan were moved to central western Tajikistan to farm cotton. Then in the early 1990′s when they tried to wrest political authority away from the area that had it (mainly Leninbad, today Khujand, and Kulob) they were killed in the places they were moved to. Many ran back to Gharm and the Rasht valley, if they didn’t just leave the country, where they continued the fight for about five more years. (Map)

In Tajikistan today you can see women and old men working in the fields earning roughly $.06 per a Kilogram starting in early September. Students take time from their studies to pick cotton for free (in some cases also getting paid), a hold over from the Soviet days. And even landowners who have bought away land from the government must produce a little bit of cotton in return. This monoculture has created a country that has to rely on others to produce its wheat, which should be able to grow enough of to feed itself. This year especially it will be a dangerous problem because its main wheat provider Russia, called to cut the export of its wheat due to its devastating fires, and its been pressing Kazakhstan (the second largest wheat provider) to do the same. Couple this with Tajikistan’s cotton being on the US black list (meaning we wont buy it) and you have a dangerous problem looming in the near future.

Kiva’s partners in Tajikistan understand the problems that the monoculture has produced, and also the lack of knowledge of how to farm different products. Thus different loan tools are used here in Tajikistan to help farmers branch out from cottons white thumb.

Click to view slideshow.

Sam Kendall is a roaming Kiva Fellow in Tajikistan. He currently lives in the northern city of Khujand, one of the two main cotton production areas.

If you are interested in reading about different Tajik farm products, read this great blog.

If you are interested in loaning to a Tajik farmer please click here.


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Sam