Adults and children in the Mansyrov family take care of the family “pets” © Uznews.net
Cultivating silkworms for silk production is the second largest agricultural industry controlled by the government after cotton and requires an equal amount of hard work and is as poorly paid.
May is the time when silkworm cocoons are ready for processing. In Uzbekistan silkworms are cultivated according to ancient traditions at home. The entire family participates in feeding the continuously growing caterpillars.
Uzbekistan has been criticized by international organizations for exploiting its people in the manual production of cotton. Silk production is not too far behind in terms exploitation. Cultivating silk cocoons has been practiced in Uzbekistan for centuries with the methods of production today resembling those used in the Middle Ages.
Silkworm cocoons are a family business
Everybody is awake and already working by 4 am in this rural family. Silkworms are “renting” four rooms in their house. The cultivation process lasts from the end of April until end of May.
During this time the entire six-person family works around the clock. The matriarch of the family, Muharram, sleeps only three hours a day throughout this time and the first thing she does when she wakes up is check on the silkworms.
Caring for them can only be performed by hand and can only be managed if the entire family is involved.
The caretakers need to maintain a constant temperature and supply the silkworms with fresh mulberry leaves. Muharram has 50 years of experience.
“One month of work takes up a yearly amount of energy. The temperature has to be 27-28 degrees. And we need to give them leaves 3-4 times a day,” says Muharram. “If the silkworms end up eating more, than we have to add food at 2 or 3 am.”
40-50 grams of silkworm per family
Silk production, as with cotton, is an odd mix of voluntary and forced labour in Uzbekistan.
The state strictly controls the silk producing process. Farmers and other rural residents receive 40-50 grams of larvae packed in small boxes from the government in late April or early May.
Silkworm caterpillars eat about 100-200 kilos of fresh mulberry leaves per day © Uznews.net
By continuously eating the caterpillars grow to about 70 times their original weight by the end of May. They consume 100-200 kilograms of fresh mulberry leaves per day. After about a month they start spinning cocoons around themselves.
Uktam, Muharram’s son, departs at dawn to cut mulberry branches. He has to prepare 60 bundles each day.
Uktam and his family can potentially receive a plot of fertile land for a good silk harvest.
“I can get one or one and half hectares of land for farming. I could plant potatoes, it’s also not easy work, but I can survive off that,” says Uktam.
Price from the government: 2 USD for 1 kg of silkworm cocoons
Muharram’s family received five boxes of silkworm larvae this year and are supposed to produce 60 kilograms of cocoons for each box they receive. The price per kilo of cocoons paid by the government is about 2 USD. For about 300 kilos of cocoons a family can stand to make about 600 USD for a month’s work. Last year Muharram and her family produced 150 kilos per box and expect it to be about 120-125 kilos per box this year. Overproducing means more money for the family.
Cultivating silkworms is extremely hard work, but 600 USD is a significant income for a rural family.
Silk cocoons: a source of foreign currency
Families like Muharram’s deliver more than 25 thousand tons of cocoons a year to the government. Uzbekistan is the third largest producer of silk after China and India. Uzbekistan produces 85 percent of the silk produced within the the CIS. Silk cocoons are a source of foreign currency for the state, with 70 percent of harvest being exported.
Muharram Mansyrova’s family are experienced silkworm breeders. Feeding caterpillars is everyone’s responsibility © Uznews.net
When it’s time to harvest silk cocoons families usually organize a form of community khashar (an event when everybody has to participate in social work for free). They invite neighbors, relatives, and friends from nearby villages.
The collected cocoons are sorted and delivered to collection points from where they are taken to special fabric making facilities and turned into silver threads for producing satin and adras, precious silk fabric.
Uzbek traditional clothing is made of satin while adras cloth is an integral part of a bride’s dowry.
Silkworm caterpillars take up four rooms in Mansyrova’s house © Uznews.net
When cocoons are ready for the picking it is customary to organize a community khashar © Uznews.net