The modernization of agriculture in Uzbekistan, for which Uzbekistan has received millions of dollars in investment by multilateral development banks, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, has been accompanied by massive confiscations of farmland across the country.
In January 2019, the Uzbek authorities announced the third redistribution of farmland in the past 10 years. Authorities attributed the restructuring to the need to optimize the use of land allocated for cotton and grain cultivation and to redistribute the land to more efficient farmers and clusters.
A report by the World Bank notes that frequent farm restructuring and weak land tenure rights have reduced management efficiency and incentives for investment in agriculture in Uzbekistan. It is assumed that land from inefficient farmers will be transferred to efficient ones, but there is no guarantee that new users will be able to improve efficiency if the land is not fertile.
Since the privatization of Uzbekistan’s agriculture sector began in 2019, various efforts to optimize the use of farmland have led to the illegal confiscation of large swathes of land leased by farmers from the state. The result has had a devastating impact on rural communities throughout the country. Farmers, who lease their land from the state, generally for a period of 30-49 years have found themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous officials (hokims) with the assistance of the police and local prosecutors. Land lease terminations have been forcibly obtained under threat of penalty, intimidation, and fraud. By coercing farmers into making “voluntary” statements to terminate their land leases, farmers have no right to compensation. Many promises of jobs with clusters have been found to be empty, leaving farmers unemployed and in debt.
In Pop district in Namangan region, hundreds of farmers, along with thousands of hectares of land, have been unilaterally disenfranchised. Deprived of an income, they are now fighting back.
In December 2015, Umida Ibragimova, a farmer from Pop district of Namangan region, received 40.7 hectares of land from the state for a lease of 49 years and founded the “Ibrohim Ma’mura” farm, on which Ibragimova intended to grow grain and cotton.
According to the farmer, she had consistently fulfilled the government-imposed quota to grow cotton and grain over the years, until her land was arbitrarily confiscated by the authorities in January 2019.
Although the state quota for cotton was abolished in March 2020, the cotton quota still exists in the form of contractual obligations for farmers to grow a certain amount of grain and cotton for so-called clusters, registered as LLCs. Despite privatization, government involvement in the cotton sector persists in the setting of quotas, recruitment of pickers and oversight of the harvest.
On January 18, 2019, the hokim of the Pop district of Namangan region, Azamjon Sultanov, under the pretext of holding a meeting, gathered about 450 district farmers in the hall of the district’s culture center, where farmers were told to write and sign statements confirming their voluntary surrender of their land to the state.
Farmers who did not come to the meeting were brought in late at night by police officers. One farmer, a woman, was pulled from her bed at midnight and brought to the meeting under police escort.
Umida Ibragimova told Uzbek Forum that most farmers initially refused to sign these statements and were indignant about the procedure, which was followed by formal requests by the hokim, which then became threats.
The farmers were locked in a cold room from 6 p.m. and not allowed to leave until they signed their statements. Having held out until midnight, Umida Ibragimova, hungry and freezing from the cold and worried about her children, came up with a plan.
Ibragimova agreed to write the statement as instructed, but omitted the word “land”, thus reading: “The reason for writing this statement is to return to the district reserve.” (A copy of the statement is available at Uzbek Forum.)
Ibragimova believed the statement could therefore not provide the basis for the seizure of her land, because it did not make sense, as it did not specify what exactly Ibragimova wanted to return. Tired police officers and hokimiyat officials did not read the text of her statement and she was released.
“The hokim had no justifiable reasons for taking the land from the farmers, otherwise the hokimiyat would have gone to court and obtained the cancellation of the long-term land leases on a legal basis,” explains Ibragimova. However, she discovered that her meaningless statement, dated January 18, 2019, was registered at the hokimiyat on January 16, two days earlier, when the statement had not yet been signed. According to Ibragimova, this proves that the hokimiyat first took an illegal decision to sieze the land and then decided to frame it as a mass voluntary decision of farmers to give up their land.
To this day, Umida Ibragimova is still trying to get her land back by filing lawsuits in administrative courts, in an effort to have the illegal decision of the hokim of Pop district from January 18 overturned.
Based on Ibragimova’s statement terminating her land lease, the hokim of Pop district issued an order which stating that “the returned land should be transferred to existing and new farms in an open competition, on the basis of a transparent and independent selection”. The order cites a resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan, adopted on January 9, 2019, on the optimization of farmland and the efficient use of cultivated areas. (A copy of the decision is available at Uzbek Forum.)
It appears that no-one, including the Farmers Council, has questioned unusual event that nine days after the adoption of the Cabinet of Ministers’ resolution, farmers of the Pop district en masse suddenly surrendered their land. Indeed, the decision of the Council of People’s Deputies of January 18, 2019, states that out of the existing 1,121 farms in Pop district, the heads of 538 (100%) cotton and grain farms, 67 (100%) horticultural farms, 100 (86%) livestock farms, and the remaining 104 farms submitted written statements to terminate their land lease agreements.
Attempts to return the land through the courts
Umida Ibragimova filed a complaint with the Namangan Region Administrative Court, which heard the case on September 7, 2021. The court decided to uphold the order of hokim Azamjon Sultanov on the grounds that the plaintiff had missed the three-month deadline for appealing to the administrative court.
The court also dismissed further arguments of Ibragimova as unimportant. In its decision, the court states that the inaccuracy of the text in Ibragimova’s application for return of her land is not a matter of principle, because Ibragimova wrote the application as the head of the farm and understood the essence of her application perfectly well. The fact that Ibragimova’s application was registered in the hokimiyat two days before it was written, was dismissed by the court as negligence in the introduction of documentation, and therefore could not be considered a sufficient reason for the annulment of the hokim’s order.
In her complaint to the prosecutor’s office, Ibragimova describes significant errors and inconsistencies in the process of seizing her land, citing other inconsistencies in addition to the fact that the application was incomplete and registered with the hokimiyat two days before it was written.
On October 26, 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict of the first court. Umida Ibragimova then filed a complaint to the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan and is waiting for a decision.
Six more farmers from Pop district who spoke to Uzbek Forum confirm Ibragimova’s story about the forceful detention of farmers on the night of January 18, 2019. Some of the farmers have faced devastating consequences due to the illegal seizure of their land, including repayment of bank loans for which they now have no income to repay.
Farmer Oybek Noriyigitov had been working on his farm in Pop District since 2015. Along with other farmers, he was invited to the district cultural center at 6 p.m. on January 18, 2019, where police officers demanded that he write a statement to voluntarily surrender his land.
Although Noyigitov never signed an application, it did not help him. He discovered that a statement to give up his land he had allegedly written had been registered at the Pop district hokimiyat n December 28, 2018, bearing his forged signature.
His 31.6 hectares of farmland were transferred to another farmer although Noriyigitov continued to work on his land and did not know that his land lease agreement had been terminated until several months later.
In December 2020, Noriyigitov appealed to the Namangan Region Administrative Court, stating in his complaint that his signature had been forged. The hearing which lasted just five minutes, ruled in favor of the hokimiyat, confirming that the seizure of his land was justified and legal. In October 2021, the same court reviewed Noriyigitov’s complaint on appeal and upheld the original decision.
Ozoda Tuychieva, another farmer from Pop district whose land was illegally confiscated after she was coerced into signing a statement surrendering her land, is also trying to get her land back after it was transferred to the cotton-producing cluster, Art Soft Tex. Tuychieva was hired by the cluster as a field worker, but is presently out of work.
According to the order of the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan dated September 5, 2019, Art Soft Tex Cluster was allocated 24.7 thousand hectares of cultivated land. According to the order the cluster is obliged to increase the fertility of the soil, introduce modern and efficient methods for the cultivation of raw cotton and other crops, and to establish processing of agricultural products.
Dildora Usmanova and her husband have run their farm in Pop district since 2006, growing cotton, grain and silk cocoons She echoes the story told by other farmers that she too was summoned to a meeting at the district culture center on January 18, 2019. “They locked us in a room and told us that they would not let us leave until we wrote and signed a statement surrendering our land. I did not want to give back my land, but after the hokim persuaded us that we would be given a loan from Agrobank to build a greenhouse, I finally agreed”, she says.
Another farmer from Pop district, Sharifa Tuychieva, says in a video message that on January 18, 2019, she was coerced into writing and signing a statement to voluntarily surrender her land. “I didn’t want to write the statement”, Tuychieva says, “but I was freezing and hungry. I live far away and wanted to get home before transportation to my village stopped.”
Tuychieva said that despite the salinity of her land, every year the hokimiyat imposed a cotton quota which she had to fulfill so as not to risk confiscation. Tuychieva said she had no other sources of income and was therefore under intense pressure each year to grow enough cotton. This turned out to be an impossible task. “I had to pay back the loan for the cotton, but there was no money, so they literally imposed a loan of 18 million soums on me, which was intended for the construction of a greenhouse. I refused to accept this loan but was told that if I accepted the loan, I would get my land back. Now I am out of work. The land has not been returned to me. I have loan debt hanging over me. I would just like my land back”, says Tuychieva.
Umida Ibragimova says that more and more farmers and farm workers from Pop district have left for Russia in search of work since losing their land and becoming unemployed. Most of the farmers have accepted the loss of their land and only a handful are desperately trying to get it back by appealing to the courts and government officials.
On July 5, 2022, ten farmers from Pop district once again went to Tashkent, this time to file complaints with the Prosecutor General’s Office. It remains to be seen whether their stories will be heard and their grievances remedied.
Photo: Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva at the General Prosecutor’s Office with farmers of Pop district. Tashkent, July 5, 2022.