During the soviet period, Uzbekistan’s rich agricultural land was converted almost entirely to produce cotton (affectionately nicknamed ‘White Gold’), resulting in Uzbekistan accounting for 70% of all Soviet cotton production.
However, given the labour intensity of the crop and the need to sustain production - over one million public servants, employees of private businesses and children were forced to work in the fields at harvest time, receiving little or no pay. Additionally, the unsustainably high water consumption of the cotton industry resulted in the complete draining of the Aral sea, an ecological catastrophe that saw vast desertification in western Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the loss of its fishing industry, and has left many fishing boats laying in decay in the middle of the desert.
In response to international pressure and the boycotting of Uzbek cotton by many retailers, in early 2012, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev banned children from working in the cotton fields. However, many professionals including teachers, college lecturers, doctors and nurses are still forced into agricultural labour.
With the collapse of the USSR, agricultural and economic diversification was vital for food security and to expand commercial exports.
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