Uzbekistan's cotton monoculture along with its current dictator, Islam Karimov is a legacy of Soviet rule. The centrally planned Soviet economy aimed to make the USSR as a whole self sufficient. To this end certain republics became highly specialized producers of certain commodities for consumption within the Soviet market and in certain cases export for hard currency. The Soviet regime concentrated on growing cotton in Uzbekistan at the expense of all other crops. As a result of this cotton monoculture Uzbekistan continues to suffer from a variety of economic, political and ecological deformities. Not the least of which has been the drying up of the Aral Sea and the poisoning of the surrounding land with salt.
Already in the 1860s in response to the loss of the Southern US as a source of cotton, the Tsarist regime sought to promote the cultivation of cotton in what is now Uzbekistan to provide raw material for its textile mills. In 1925 and 1926, Soviet land reform eliminated the problem of landless peasants cultivating other peoples lands in the region. However, most of the small plots now owned by Uzbeks remained too small to be economically viable. The inability of Uzbek farmers to make a living from these parcels of land facilitated the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s. Unlike European areas of the USSR, strong class antogonisms between the formerly landless peasants and the former land owning class of bais remained muted. Many bais retained positions of notable influence in rural communities despite the confiscation of much of their wealth during the land reform campaign. To remove this influence which the Soviet government correctly connected with opposition to collectivization, the OGPU forcibly deported over 12,000 families from their homes to places as far away as Ukraine and the North Caucasus. The collectivization of agriculture ensured state control over the rural Uzbek economy. In the following decades, the Soviet state would use this control to turn the Uzbek countryside into one large cotton plantation.
The Soviet government sought to expand the production of cotton in Uzbekistan by expanding its planted acreage at the expense of food crops and the intensive use of fertilizers. Expansion of cotton cultivation required massive irrigation. Unpaid corvee labor built the canals that provided this irrigation including the 270 km long Great Ferghana Canal constructed in 1930. Other forms of forced labor also contributed to cotton cultivation at this time. By 1934, 20,100 inmates in the Sazlag complex of corrective labor camps in Chirchik worked on cotton farms. By the end of the 1930s, the USSR had become self sufficient in cotton.
Cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan continued to receive a priority throughout the Soviet period. It also created significant distortions in the region's economy. By the early 1980s the USSR had become a major exporter of cotton. It accounted for over a fifth of the world's production and lagged only behind China in total output. Although Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contributed to Soviet cotton production, Uzbekistan remained the center of cultivation in the USSR with 70% of production. Uzbekistan became heavily dependent upon harvesting raw cotton for the USSR and had to acquire almost everything else including textiles from other regions of the USSR. Cotton in Uzbekistan at this time employed 40% of its total labor force and generated 65% of the republic's total economic output. The rapid expansion of this crop, however, proved unsustainable. It could not grow fast enough to fully employ and provide a rising standard of living to the increasing Uzbek population. The economic conditions of the predominantly rural Uzbek population thus stagnated and started to decline. A trend that acclerated rapidly after the collapse of the USSR. The Soviet emphasis on the production of raw cotton to the exclusion of other economic activities impeded economic diversification, industrialization and urbanization. Thus leaving Uzbekistan relatively backwards compared to Russia and other European areas of the USSR.
Cotton monoculture also wrecked havoc on the Uzbek ecology. The expansion of cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan required the massive diversion of scarce water resources for irrigation. Cotton farms drained so much water from the Amu Darya and Sir Darya rivers that they could no longer replace the water that evaporated from the Aral Sea. As a result the Aral Sea shrank significantly and rendered much of the nearby land infertile due to excess salinity. The overuse of pesticides also posed environmental dangers. Finally, the failure to practice crop rotation led to massive soil erosion in Uzbekistan. The environmental degradation caused by cotton in Uzbekistan has caused serious health problems among many of its rural inhabitants. Despite being a noticeable problem since the 1980s, neither the Soviet government or Karimov regime made any serious attempt to address its root causes in the cotton industry.
Today the cotton farms remain state property. The workers on these farms receive only a small fraction of the money earned by the state by the sale of cotton to western companies. It returns very little of this to the people of Uzbekistan in the form of social services such as education and health care. Both of which have deteriorated signficantly since the collapse of the USSR. Child labor mobilized by local officials during the fall harvest season remains wide spread. This practice has further retarded education in Uzbekistan. The cotton monoculture of Uzbekistan remains in need of serious reform. Toothless suggestions have not improved the situation. Only the force of threatening sanctions against the crop unless there are serious reforms is likely to improve the situation.