Uzbekistan: The Hard Labor Behind Soft Silk

As has always happened at the end of every May, Nasiba Barkasheva’s home burst with frenetic activity as the silkworm cocoon harvest reached its conclusion.
Neighbors, friends and relatives in Boyovul, a village around 50 kilometers from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, came together for the khashar, an informal institution that joins the community in a blend of labor and celebration. While one group at Barkasheva’s home sorted and cleaned the cocoons, some cooked plov while others belted out folksongs and danced.
This year, after 20 days of laboring day and night gathering heaps of mulberry leaves and feeding them to box-loads of insatiable larvae, Barkasheva, a 63-year old pensioner, let herself hope for a bountiful harvest. With her 30 years of experience, she has developed an eye for predicting the harvest. At first glance, she reckoned on around 80 kilograms.
Caring for silkworms is delicate, but draining work.
“It has to be done entirely by hand and by the entire family. Anybody doing this has to constantly keep an eye on the air temperature in the room, and to make sure the caterpillars have enough mulberry leaves. They need to be fed every two hours,” Barkasheva told EurasiaNet.org.
A crate of silkworms is able to chomp its way through up to a whole ton of mulberry leaves. Once the plump silkworms have molted four times, they begin to weave a hard, silky cocoon within which they undergo the final transformation of their life cycle. That fibrous shell is what farmers like Barkasheva are after.
In total, families across Uzbekistan harvest around 26 thousand tons of cocoons annually, going by official figures from recent years.
Once the cocoons have been gathered, sorted and cleaned, they are carted off to a collection point. From there, the raw material is sent onward for processing into strands of fine thread and then woven into sheets of satin. A single cocoon can produce an unbroken thread of silk up to 1,000 meters in length.
The entire chain of production — from when the eggs are distributed to the end of harvesting — is closely watched by the government.
Eggs are handed out to families in line with a strictly enforced agreement. Farmers are required to work to a Soviet-style production quota. Around 40,000 farming collectives are involved in this annual routine. Some families eager to get into the business try to source silkworm eggs independently.
Each boxed consignment holds a mere 19 grams worth of eggs that are supposed to be nurtured into 50 kilograms of cocoons. When farmers are unable to meet their targets, they turn to the independent producers to supplement the harvest. Silkworms are a government monopoly, however, so while farmers can buy and sell among themselves, all exports must be handled by the state.
In 2016, the government was paying around 8,000 Uzbek sums (around $1) for a kilogram of the cocoons. Because of a shortage of hard cash, payment is often made not in cash but in goods like flour and vegetable oil. The farmers then take those goods to barter for things that they need.
One Ferghana Valley farmer, Madamin Sidikov, said that a few things have changed in the payments to silkworm farmers since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power last year.
This year, farmers are being paid in cash around 11,000 sums ($1.35) per kilogram — not a huge increase, but useful all the same.
Mirziyoyev has set ambitious targets. He wants to see Uzbekistan return to Soviet levels of production, when the republic produced silk from some 30 to 35 thousand tons of cocoons in a year.
“But payments also need to reach Soviet levels. Back then, what they paid for a kilo of cocoons was equivalent to the cost of one kilo of meat. If you translate that to modern prices, it comes in at around 30,000 sums ($3.75). If that really happens, more and more families will take up silkworm farming,” Sidikov told EurasiaNet.org.
Sidikov said that this year he took on eight crates of silkworm eggs and managed to hand in more than 400 kilograms of cocoons.
The government sees silk as a valuable source of hard cash and, in that respect, places the commodity alongside cotton, natural gas, gold and uranium as a strategic asset. This makes the farming of silk a highly political affair.
“If you take a kilogram of silk strands, depending on its classification, it can collect $60-65 on the world market. And the cost of a kilogram of processed cocoons varies at around $8-10,” silkworm specialist Alisher Eshmirzayev told EurasiaNet.org.
Eshmirzayev said around 70 percent of the silk produced in Uzbekistan — be it in the form of thread or fabric — is currently exported. And the demand is only expected to grow, he said.
In March, Mirziyoyev signed a decree ordering the creation of Uzbekipaksanoat, a nominally independent organization that will handle the business of developing the sector, attracting more investment and introducing new strains of mulberry. The government hopes the reforms will help the sector produce 35,000 tons of raw cocoons and increase processing volume by 50 percent by 2021.
But for all the attention given to increasing production, little thought seems to have been given to improving and modernizing the methods of silkworm breeding. People in the region have been engaged in the craft for many centuries, but the form of labor the work entails has in essence changed little since olden times.
One former silkworm farmer, 67-year-old Marhamat Yuldasheva, said that the month he spent coaxing and feeding caterpillars was an exhausting process that sapped her energy for many months afterwards. The caterpillars leave a vile smell in the rooms where they are kept, requiring regular redecoration.
“The way our ancestors grew cocoons is the way we continue to do it to this day,” Yuldasheva told EurasiaNet.org. “I’ve heard that in other countries this process has long been mechanized. Will we live to see that?”
When the khashar came to a close in Barkasheva’s courtyard, the results were even better than she could have hoped. Her crate of shock white cocoons weighed 85 kilograms, around $100 worth. Part of the earnings will go toward her daughter’s wedding and freshening up the room where the silkworm were kept.