Most people have never heard of Karakalpakstan and, no, I didn’t spell it wrongly, even though my spell checker thinks I did. It’s a vast, autonomous republic in western Uzbekistan, which is an environmental disaster zone.
Karakalpakstan encompasses the Aral Sea, or what’s left of it. Soviet-era central planners sucked the sea dry to irrigate cotton fields, which turned the world’s fourth-largest lake into a relative puddle. The roads around Nukus, the region’s capital, are crusted with salt, the only memory of the dried-up sea. I think we’ve all seen pictures of old boats, tied up to old piers that are many miles from the few puddles left of the Aral Sea. Fishing almost disappeared and pollution and pesticides made what was left, toxic. Many people fled the area.
Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops on the planet, and is responsible for significant water depletion wherever it grows. Not that Soviet planners gave a damn about such considerations.
Enter a new crop, which was actually there all the time, unnoticed by central bureaucracies. The root crop “Liquorice” has been cultivated across Central Asia for millennia, and is now becoming a booming business for dried-up Karakalpakstan. Not only does it grow well in salty conditions, it regenerates the land by pulling salt out of the soil.
The local residents put Liquorice in their vodka in Karakalpakstan. The sweetness softens the local tipple, called Qarataw, making it more palatable. The value of Uzbekistan’s Liquorice-extract exports rose by a quarter between 2017 and 2021 to reach US$30 million, and most of it is produced in Karakalpakstan. Cotton is still king but the future of the area looks brighter with the growth of this ancient crop. Karakalpakstan in now the world’s largest supplier of Liquorice, by volume.
The Uzbekistan government is helping as well. They are encouraging the development of second-tier products: cloth instead of cotton; Liquorice extract instead of raw root Liquorice; plastics instead of petroleum. All this is good news for the economy of Karakalpakstan and its people. The disaster of central planning under the Soviet Union is gradually being corrected under this tutelage, aided and abetted by the courage of local entrepreneurs.
I’ve always loved Liquorice. However, recently, I’ve read reports of people dying from eating too much Liquorice; the reports claim it’s toxic to humans in certain large quantities. Karakalpakstan needs a good promotion campaign to counteract this news or, at least, to investigate the claims. U.S. news reports, and attention-seeking quacks, are always looking for the sensational, so whether these reports are actually true, or not, is highly debatable.
There are also attempts to refill the Aral Sea, with efforts in Kazakhstan, to the north, as well as Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan: the original lake boundaries cross all these borders. It will be a long process, with climate change diminishing the annual mountain snowfall that feeds the Sea. However, some fisheries have already returned, as have some people. Even the stupidities and myopic plans of central governments can be reversed with enough scientific knowhow and local commitment.
Finally, even if you are doubtful about eating Karakalpakstan Liquorice, the industry now produces a wide variety of Liquorice-based products including shampoos, medicines and teas. For certain, I shall be adding Liquorice, hopefully from Karakalpakstan, to my vodka in future. I might even start buying it to eat again, albeit in moderation!