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Her father, Adkham, a bony 42-year-old, farms 10 acres of loamy land. In early May, he said, an official from a state-owned nursery handed him two 1-ounce boxes of silkworm eggs to be nurtured into about 220 pounds of cocoons.

Within four weeks of hatching, silkworms grow to 10,000 times their original, poppy-seed size. Their creamy stomachs turn greenish from their exclusive diet of mulberry leaves, and they need constant attention. “They’re as helpless as newborn babies,” Dilorom said.

They feed seven times a day and die if their meal is an hour late. Dead ones must be removed promptly lest they infect the others swarming among the fresh mulberry twigs that Dilorom has risen at dawn to gather.

Sensitive to light, noise and breeze, the silkworms grow up in a humid barn next to the family’s dilapidated adobe house. Their munching sounds like the patter of raindrops.

Speaking of this year’s season, Dilorom recalled: “We worked hard, had to miss some classes. Just like many other kids in school.”

“In some schools, they raise silkworms as part of their home economics class,” said Khaitboy Yakubov of Najot, a rights group in the western city of Urgench.

For the farmers and their children, “silk farming opens an annual cycle of forced labor and abuse by authorities,” said Ganikhon Mamatkhonov, a rights activist who investigated numerous cases of abuse of Uzbek farmers.

The risks these advocates run are considerable. Months after Mr. Mamatkhonov spoke to the AP in May 2009, he was jailed for five years on bribery charges - one of dozens of government critics imprisoned in recent years. (Mr. Mamatkhonov’s colleagues say he was framed.)

Underage labor is not limited to Uzbekistan’s silk industry; it has been exposed in India’s silk industry, too, but this former Soviet republic seems unique in the lengths to which it goes to keep the silk spinning.

Mr. Yavkashtiyev of the Agriculture Ministry acknowledges that local authorities prescribe quotas based on farm size. A farmer with 120 to 150 acres “must harvest 2 or 3 tons of raw cocoons,” he said.

Artificial substitutes such as viscose and nylon have greatly diminished demand for real silk, but it remains a material associated with luxury and style and has medicinal and military uses such as parachutes.

The most recent available figures, from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, put Uzbekistan’s silk earnings at $57 million in 2005 from 17,000 tons of raw cocoons.

This month, Uzbek media put the harvest at 25,200 metric tons.

Silk-growing nations such as South Korea and Japan have switched to less labor-intensive mulberry bushes and mechanized leaf harvest. But Uzbek authorities prefer to “follow the old school, where big mulberry trees are utilized for feeding silkworms,” said Hisham Greiss, a Chicago-based independent specialist on silk farming.

And they are relentless. Sukhrobjon Ismoilov of the Expert Working Group, an independent think tank based in the capital, Tashkent, said local officials threaten to annul land leases, delay payments through government-affiliated banks, and even resort to physical abuse.

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