When Marfua heard the pounding at her door, she knew the men knocking wanted to take her land.
More than seven months pregnant, tending three small children and an elderly father, and with her husband far away in Moscow searching for work, Marfua seemed like an easy target for the local hokkim (regional government head) in his efforts to bully farmers into signing away the rights to their leaseholds.
Instead, Marfua refused the callers -- four police and the leader of the local farmer's association -- entry, pitting her own will against the institutional power of the local government.
Marfua was determined to resist the Tashkent District hokkim's efforts to corrupt the purpose of presidential Decree #3077, signed in October 2008. The ostensible aim of the decree was to rationalize agriculture, coalescing smaller plots into larger ones. However, according to farmers and farmers' advocates, in practice the decree has become an exercise in arbitrary land re-distribution, in which local political leaders reward friends, family, and those offering bribes.
"The decree was an excuse to take the land," says Abdulkhadir Nazarov, a farmers' advocate based near Tashkent.
In the last decade, the Uzbek government has broken up the large Soviet-era collective farms, granting 49-year leases to farmers for small plots of state-owned land. But in an apparent effort to maximize efficiencies in production and water usage, last year the president promulgated Decree #3077 to reduce the number of smaller plots of between 10 and 15 hectares.
The hokkims seized on the decree as an opportunity to redistribute at will the lands in their regions. Local observers assert many hokkims act with impunity, and function as petty tyrants. According to Nazarov, thousands of farmers in this mostly agricultural nation have already summarily lost the title to their small leaseholds.
In response, Nazarov's group organized a series of petitions, five in all, appealing the decisions. Although there have been some successes, he says, most leaseholders have not regained the lands they had worked. The "process worked in some areas and not in others," he notes.
In a nation where unemployment and underemployment are already high, creating additional thousands of dispossessed citizens in rural areas is a potentially destabilizing development.
Of those stripped of their leases, many are working the lands they had previously held, but as tenants, not proprietors, advocates say. Others have joined the stream of migrants trekking to Russia and Kazakhstan in search of work. Even though the financial crisis has much diminished employment prospects in foreign countries, the lack of jobs in the long-stalled Uzbek economy is forcing some to take desperate measures. Many who remain do nothing at all. Some continue to struggle to regain their leases.
Although farmers' stories often differ in detail, the processes by which they lose their lands are remarkably similar.
In Marfua's village, representatives of the hokkim arrived with completed forms and told farmers to sign them. When it was her turn, Marfua refused to sign the form that declared she "of her own volition" gave up the rights to the 18-and-a-half hectare plot she worked. Marfua says the hokkim had already seized seven-and-a-half hectares of her land the year before.
Soon thereafter the police and the head of the farmer's association visited her. The association head, a close associate of the hokkim, told her that if she continued to refuse, they would force her father, in whose name the land was held, to consent. In response, she hid her father and promptly called Nazarov's office.
The farmer's association chief also told her jokingly that he would throw her "at the feet of [the hokkim] to beg his forgiveness," she says. The director of the local newspaper also came by, urging her to sign the form.
After Nazarov's group quickly published her story on the Internet, the police backed off, "but they kept pushing me with the bureaucracy," she says. Her father, worn by the stress, suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. "They didn't know there would be so much resistance," Nazarov says. With Marfua's husband away, "they thought she would put up the white flag."
Marfua was one of the lucky ones. In her village close to the capital, 500 of 800 farmers were asked to sign away their land. Most were afraid to fight the government, she says. She was the only one who refused.
Her reason was simple: "I need the land. I have small children. I have to feed them. The land is our only source of income."
Similarly, Nodir, a farmer in the Ferghana Valley, had held a lease on 60 hectares of land he had worked for eight years. He says that although he refused to sign the hokkim's form, the police seized his land anyway, giving it to two farmers in plots of 30 hectares each. "The president gave us 50 years," he says of his lease, and the "hokkims are taking them away."
Nodir harbors no ill will to those who received the land, which he says they were forced to take. After farming for over 40 years, he says his six children, who had worked the land with him, are now "sitting at home," picking up work when they can. Twenty hectares of the seized land is now lying fallow, he added.
Echoing this sentiment, a farmer in a southern region complains he was forced to take land even though he does not have enough family or workers to adequately tend it. Nevertheless, he will be fined if he does not fulfill his quota of crop production that has been mandated by officials.
The state's actions have left him and others deeply disillusioned. "Three years ago they said we had the land for 49 years. People were happy because it feels like your land. Now, maybe they will take it away," the farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, said. "People don't trust the government anymore."
Farmers' options are few. A profound lack of understanding of their rights lies behind much of the efforts to seize land, say advocates. The hokkims often find it easy to take advantage of unsophisticated farmers, many of whom worked for years on state farms. Further, many lawyers who might work on their behalf are unfamiliar with land laws. And although a few local prosecutors have sided with farmers, most often they work closely with the hokkims.
The full effects of the government's policies will become apparent after the harvest this fall. Meanwhile, many farmers are seething. In Nodir's village in the Ferghana Valley, more than half of the men and women have left to work abroad. For the farmers who stayed behind, debts to the state are increasing. When asked the result, Nodir was unequivocal: "This is a nightmare."