By Ulugbek Khaidarov and Pulat Gadoev in Jizak and Karshi
Uzbekistan's new private farmers are accusing the authorities and collective farm bosses of playing dirty to drive them out of business.
Regional officials and the powerful leaders of agricultural communes across the republic are being accused of withholding power and water, land seizures and even threats of violence.
More than 60 per cent of Uzbeks live in rural areas, and collective farming has long been the traditional way of life. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, legislation was introduced to allow farmers to operate on their own.
While President Islam Karimov has backed the new breed of small landholders, it seems that the old communist ways of regional powerbrokers and agricultural bosses die hard. "We live like dogs because we dare to own land," said fruit farmer Abdurakhmon Utaev from the Kitab region, south of Samarkand. "Since I started up my farm two years ago, the life of my family has become a constant nightmare." Utaev claims that he has faced opposition from the local collective, also called Kitab, since he started work on his Bogi-Limon farm. Diyor, the only other private farm within the bounds of the Kitab collective, has been in court battles with the local authorities for several years.
"I wasn't given water for plants or necessary equipment. The electricity in my house was cut off, and my wife and four sons have been living in darkness for six months now," Utaev said.
However, Kitab head Zarip Burkhonov told IWPR that he had tried to help the private owners, and claimed that they simply didn't "know how to work".
"[Private] farmers only think about their own pockets," he said. "Thanks to people who continue to work in collective farming, we have been able to build three schools, buy 10 tractors, provide gas to several areas and build roads." Those who choose to become private farmers are entitled to a portion of land and a share of resources from the collectives.
While they must follow government guidelines on what crops they grow and hand over an agreed portion of their harvest to the state, they can keep any surplus. This has led to a drop in income for the collective farms.
So the heads of the latter, agricultural department chiefs and regional administrators have powerful vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
As a result, many would-be private farmers are allocated the very driest and most remote fields with no irrigation canals. At several farms in the Nishan region, close to the border with Turkmenistan, the water supply provided was less than a third of what was needed, and all complaints and appeals were allegedly ignored by regional administrator Ravshan Khurramov and the heads of local agriculture bodies. The poor crop yield that followed saw Khurramov seize land from 28 farms because they couldn't provide the state a sufficient proportion of their harvest - despite a court order being legally required for such a move.
In the Jizak oblast, around 100 km south-west of capital Tashkent, the courts have been inundated with cases seemingly designed to restrict the activities of private farms.
According to the head of the court, Kamiljon Sindarov, 320 farms have been closed with another 180 cases pending over the non-fulfilment of government requirements. Sindarov told IWPR that private farmers failed to sow cotton on around 8,000 hectares of land as directed. He dismissed their argument that the heavy rain that lashed Uzbekistan until June had rotted the harvest, leaving the owners with no choice but to plant other crops.
"If the weather conditions in spring were terribly difficult, the farmers could have sown the cotton at the beginning of summer. But they preferred to use the land as they pleased, and planted wheat and onions there," said Kamiljon.
The regional administration then ordered the unauthorised crops, on more than 662 hectares, to be destroyed. The land in question is now in the process of being confiscated by the state.
The Uzbek leadership has stressed that vital agricultural reforms cannot succeed without private farmers, calling them "the hope of the economy".
Yet many local bureaucrats, long used to controlling the land and those who farm it, are seemingly allowed to make the lives of private farmers as difficult as possible. After two years of torment, Utaev has a simple request. "Let me work in peace. I know and love the land and I will fulfil the greatest of plans - just protect me from the officials," he said.
Ulugbek Khaidarov and Pulat Gadoev are IWPR correspondents in Uzbekistan.