Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth leading producer of cotton, is a prime example of how cotton can severely impact a region’s environment. In the 1950s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. Today, water levels in the Aral are less than 10 percent of what they were 50 years ago. As the Aral dried up, fisheries and the communities that relied on them failed. Over time, the sea became over-salinated and laden with fertilizer and pesticides from the nearby fields. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt saturated the air, creating a public health crisis and settling onto farm fields, contaminating the soil. The Aral is rapidly becoming a dry sea and the loss of the moderating influence that such a large body of water has on the weather has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier.
While Uzbekistan is an extreme example of how cotton farming can wreak havoc on the environment, the impact of cotton agriculture is felt in other regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and the Rio Grande in the U.S. and Mexico.
Organic cotton is a much more sustainable alternative, but today it is only about one percent of all the cotton grown worldwide and quite expensive to grow compared to conventional cotton. It is not without its downsides, however. Organic cotton still needs large amounts of water and the clothing made from it may still be dyed with chemicals and shipped globally, meaning that there’s still a big carbon footprint with cotton garments carrying the “organic” tag.
Dyes are creating a chemical Fukushima in Indonesia. The Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world due in great part to the hundreds of textile factories lining its shores. According to Greenpeace, with 68 percent of the industrial facilities on the Upper Citarum producing textiles, the adverse health effects to the 5 million people living in the river basin and wildlife are alarming.
Little care was paid to Indonesia’s water infrastructure when its textile boom began; proper framework for waste disposal was largely neglected. Clothing manufacturers dumped their chemicals into the river, making the Citarum nothing more than a open sewer containing with lead, mercury, arsenic and a host of other toxins. Greenpeace tested the discharge from one of these textile plants along the Citarum and found disturbing amounts of nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor, which can be deadly to aquatic life. Greenpeace also found the water to be high in alkalinity—equivalent to that of lye-based drain openers—and had apparently not even received the most basic of treatment. Greenpeace described the discharge as “highly caustic, will burn human skin coming into direct contact with the stream and will have a severe impact (most likely fatal) on aquatic life in the immediate vicinity of the discharge area.”
The menace caused by nonylphenol doesn’t end at the Citarum River. The chemical remains in our clothes after they are produced and only comes out after a few washes. For this reason, the European Union (EU) member states have banned imports of clothing and textiles containing nonylphenol ethoxylates (it banned nonylphenol for its own textile manufacturing more than a decade ago.)
U.S. seed giant Monsanto has threatened to pull its genetically modified crop technology from India if the government goes ahead with its plan to cut the company's royalty fees. The Monsanto Company has long stated its allegiance to farmers, and claims that their livelihoods have been the number one motivator behind their business model comprised of patented genetically engineered seeds and a vast array of farming chemicals. Monsanto's joint venture firm in India said that it would be difficult to bring new technologies to India because it was becoming difficult for the company to recoup its investments in research and development of genetically modified seeds.
Monsanto said about 7 million cotton farmers in India use its seeds. Over the last two decades, millions of small farmers have adopted genetically modified cotton seeds, making India one of the world's biggest producers of cotton and a major exporter of raw cotton. HOWEVER The Monsanto Company has a long and infamous history in the nation of India, with its GMO crop failures and strongly linked to an epidemic of farmer suicides.
According to the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, in 2009 alone 17,638 farmers committed suicide in India, amounting to one suicide every 30 minutes. Monsanto has been blamed for contributing to 290,000 suicides by farmers over the last 20 years according to the nation crime records bureau of India.
Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and the government of Uzbekistan uses one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor to produce it.
Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. The Uzbek government forces farmers to grow cotton and deliver production quotas under threats of penalty, including the loss of the lease to farm the land, criminal charges and fines. The government forces over a million citizens to pick cotton and deliver harvest quotas under threat of penalty, including expulsion from school, job loss, and loss of social security benefits.
Forced labor and child labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan is unique to the world: it is a state-controlled system, under the direction of a president in power since the end of the Soviet Union, Islam Karimov, and violates the fundamental rights of millions of Uzbek citizens each year.
Cotton picking is dangerous work. Each year, the forced-labor system of cotton production has claimed the lives of several Uzbek citizens, and many forced to pick cotton are exposed to unknown chemicals in the fields, unsanitary housing, and lack of safe drinking water.
Until recently, the government mobilized schoolchildren age 11-15 on a mass scale to pick cotton, leaving schools throughout much of the country effectively closed during the harvest season
The government of Uzbekistan has increased the use of forced adult labor, apparently to compensate for fewer children. Massive mobilization of teachers, doctors, nurses and other adults to the cotton harvest has degraded education and health services.
Profits of the Uzbek cotton sector support only the Karimov government. Uzbek farmers are forced to meet state-established cotton quotas, purchase inputs from one state-owned enterprise, and sell the cotton to a state-owned enterprise at artificially low prices. The system traps farmers in poverty, and the state profits from sales to global buyers. The profits disappear into a secret fund to which only the highest level officials have access, known as the Selkhozfond.