Cottonpicking Bad

Summer is coming, it's going to be hot and you want to look cool. No problem. Head down to almost any of the major high-street retailers and pick up a three-pack of pure white cotton t-shirts for next to nothing. But if any of the cotton comes from Uzbekistan - and some of it probably does - then you may want to know the dirt on brutal human rights abuses and environmental devastation before the store swipes both your payment card and your conscience.

Cotton production in Uzbekistan doesn't feature in all those glossy poster campaigns and TV commercials beloved of our best-known garment retailers. But then a bunch of dirt-poor children with bleeding hands standing next to a dead fish on the shores of a dried up inland sea probably wouldn't play as well as a giggling group of brightly-clothed youngsters cavorting to the latest hit single.

And then there's Andijan. You may have heard of that town briefly on the news last year. Even the Uzbekistan government admits that 187 civilians died there on 13 May 2005. Unofficial but trustworthier estimates place the death toll at closer to 700 - men, women and children shot in cold blood by government troops in the worst state-sponsored massacre of unarmed protesters since Tiananmen Square. Lost the thread? It's still cotton.

Uzbekistan is the world's second largest cotton exporter and Europe is its biggest customer, buying around $350 million of Uzbek cotton every year. And cotton production in the central Asian republic represents one of the most exploitative enterprises in the world. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, children as young as 12 were forced to work alongside the massed ranks of tractors at harvest time. There aren't many tractors these days and in a scene reminiscent of 18th-century Mississippi, entire families are forced to pick cotton just to survive. Children as young as seven are taken out of school for three months a year to work the fields, often without adequate food or water. If they pick less than four kilos of cotton a day they are beaten by their own teachers, who are forced to work alongside them. How are those t-shirts looking? Still whiter than white?

The slave driver-in-chief is president Islam Karimov, a former Soviet stooge who seized control when Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991 while the USSR crumbled. Since then he has spun one of the world's most unpleasant dictatorships out of the Uzbek cotton trade, which both funds and motivates his regime. Andijan was merely the most visible and large scale of human rights abuses in a land where any dissent is routinely met with torture and extrajudicial execution. The whole machinery of the state is geared to ensure that cotton is the only significant export crop, and so the Uzbek farmers and their families are left with little option but to work for a pittance as Karimov, his cronies and the international cotton industry cream off the profits. The Uzbek cotton industry is also built upon environmental degradation on a massive scale, including the diversion of the rivers that once fed the Aral Sea to irrigate the cotton fields. Once Asia's largest expanse of inland water, three quarters of the Aral Sea has now been drained. In less than a generation, the Karakalpak people, who have lived on the shores of the Aral for 2,000 years, have seen their way of life destroyed. The 24 species of native fish that were their livelihood have disappeared and what was once the sea floor has become a vast desert of dry mud-flats contaminated with salt and pesticide residues. When the north winds blow, huge dust storms of these residues engulf and suffocate the Karakalpaks. In some regions more than half of recorded deaths can be linked to respiratory illness. The Karakalpaks also boast the highest rate of cancer of the oesophagus in the world and birth abnormalities five times higher than those suffered by the average shopper on London's Oxford Street.

To add insult to injury, most of the water diverted to the cotton fields of Uzbekistan doesn't even get there. Due to the inefficiency of the irrigation system more than 60 per cent is lost en route. The mismanagement of the Aral is now threatening agriculture across the nation, with two thirds of all irrigated land suffering from severe salinisation. An adequate drainage system has not been installed because it would make cotton production more expensive.

If any of the above concerns you, then this is what concerned cotton consumers can do. Ask the shops, especially the big chains, to tell you whether any of the cotton in their products comes from Uzbekistan and refuse to buy them if they do or if the companies can't, or won't tell you. Demand that they label all their clothes to show the country of origin of the cotton fibre. Ask them also to guarantee that their products are child-labour free and that they do not contribute to the destruction of the environment. If you are an investor, seek assurances that none of your shares are connected to companies involved in the Uzbek cotton industry. And tell everyone you know about the real cost of those lovely white t-shirts. Then perhaps the 700 people who were slaughtered in Andijan won't have died in vain.

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