Amid a sustained human rights campaign to end the mass forced labor surrounding Uzbekistan's annual cotton harvest, farmers in the eastern province of Ferghana are saying that they were enlisted to reattach picked cotton onto the bolls of bushes to feign a picturesque snowy-white landscape ahead of an anticipated visit by the country's prime minister, Shavkat Mirzayev.
The governor of Ferghana is said to have called for hundreds of men and women to undo the back-breaking work of picking cotton — the nation's main export — and glue the fiber back onto plants that would be seen along Mirzayev's expected route, according to a local resident who informed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service.
In the village of Shaharteppa, some 400 workers were put to work gluing cotton to stalks along the main road leading to the town, while others swept the path to keep it clean, the resident claimed. Because the country's government is highly authoritarian, the local spoke anonymously to avoid reprisals from the state.
"Some of them were applying glue inside the bolls and others were putting cotton on the bolls, while another group was attaching cotton capsules onto stalks in the front rows of the cotton field," said the resident. "When I asked them why they were gluing cotton, they told me, 'Apparently the prime minister is coming and we're told everything should look good here.' "
A farmer from the area who also spoke anonymously out of fear of retribution suggested that the effort had been coerced.
"People were put through so much trouble," the farmer remarked. "More than 500 people had to leave their work and come and glue cotton here. They said it was being done at the provincial governor's order."
To add insult to injury, Mirzayev didn't even come by.
The incident is not isolated. Ferghana officials reportedly used workers to glue cotton back onto bolls in 2009 when longtime President Islam Karimov passed through the province. This past March, fake cotton flowers were reportedly reattached to stems when the head of state visited again.
The effort to beautify surroundings to please government figures is not uncommon, especially in former Soviet countries. The phrase "Potemkin village" was coined in Russia to refer to fake portable villages erected to impress visiting dignitaries and members of the royal family.
Uzbekistan is the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter. Each year, the government enlists more than a million of its people to pick cotton for little or no compensation during each harvest season, then buys the crop at below-market rates and exports it for a huge windfall. Over the years, human rights campaigners have increasingly pressured the Uzbek government to abandon the exploitation of forced labor, especially the mobilization of children to help fulfill regional cotton quotas, but labor exploitation remains rampant, human rights groups say.
Last month, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of groups advocating against cotton slavery in Uzbekistan, shared documents with VICE News showing that the government is coercing students to sign statements saying that they agree to either participate in the harvest, which runs from September to mid-November each year, or face expulsion.
Few residents can escape the toil, with reports of doctors, nurses, teachers, and other government employees also being put to work during the harvest.
Matthew Fischer-Daly, coordinator of the Cotton Campaign, said that various institutions are "told to contribute to the harvest, or else … whether its contributing employees to pick cotton, contributing financial payments, or shutting down businesses — even wedding venues — so that you don't interfere with people going to work in the fields."
Some of these take the form of local officials selling exemptions to residents who pay a fee to avoid picking cotton.
"It's a racket. It's extortion," Fischer-Daly remarked. "It's part of the corruption that plagues Uzbekistan, certainly related and embedded in the cotton sector. When you look at the cotton sector, it's not a rational system of production. It exists because it serves as a patronage system, which means government officials benefit from it. The farmers and the people do not."
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