Thursday, November 20, 2008

From Jalal Abad to Osh, Central Asia and King Cotton (or in this case, Kommandant Cotton)

We left Jalal Abad slowly, reluctantly, like pulling oneself up from a wonderful meal with friends... indeed Shaarbek's friends hosted and fed and toasted us through four hours of departure. Once on the road, full and content, the wide cotton fields seemed benign and calming though in fact they represent one of the most destructive forced agricultural programs ever visited on dear Mother Earth.

The Soviet policy of industrial cotton production in Central Asia led to the draining of the Aral Sea, the immobilizing and impoverishing of an entire sub-continent of people and to the destruction of vast terrains of brilliantly balanced domesticated land. For previous historical eons these fertile plains, these great expanses circled by ragged white mountains, delivered-up an abundance of apples, pears, apricots, plumbs, wheat, corn, almonds, pistachio, and a veritable cornucopia of vegetables, spices and herbs - edible and medicinal. This rich and varied production emerged within a system that engaged and supported the seasonal needs of livestock and communities. A balanced and richly productive ecosystem meshing culture, agriculture, humans, animals and plants with a geological, ecological and seasonal base so that for thousands of years the complex and portable cultures of the Central Asian steppe grew and continued, presenting to the world some of the greatest glories of human/planet joint efforts: glories such as the development of the horse and the refinement of the apple, each of which are globally held mythic icons of nature's perfection and abundance. But orchards were razed and pastures and gardens plowed under to make room for the monopoly of King Cotton and his endless thirst for not just water, but grueling physical labor. In a desperate and clearly hopeless attempt to secure an independent and sufficient source of cotton for the Soviet Union, policies were implemented that literally drained an inland sea for irrigation and closed schools for months at a time to procure a pliant labor force with small fingers - thought to be so well suited for cotton picking. The legacy of this insanity lingers today as cotton is still an immediate cash crop for these cash-strapped countries, and re-establishing the diversity of an agricultural system of self-sufficient food production would take decades. There are water shortages through-out the region and even today schools close during the cotton harvest.

At dusk we took a brief detour to Uzgen to catch a view of its famous 11th Century minaret and magically we encountered a wedding party wandering through the fields around the tower, amply serenaded by a singer and accordion player. As the wedding party disappeared in the dropping deep blue evening the silhouette of the tower merged with the sky and in the formless indigo night music continued, celebrating a happy couple. The weeks after Ramadan are the prime wedding season; the fasting is over, the crops are in and it is time to bundle down for winter...

In Osh we found our 5 room European chalet-styled hotel, the dream-child of visiting members of assistance groups such as Medecins sans Frontieres and others.

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