Indian cotton farmers maneuver between fair trade, Monsanto and debt in search of better life

A spotlight about the challenges which Indian cotton farmers are facing in providing our clothes.

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Fair Trade organic cotton 

Support on behalf of NGOs such as Center For Environment Education (CEE) is critical in helping producers earn sustainable incomes. CEE hosts a farmer field school which teaches producers how to plant local flora to attract friendly insects and outcompete bollworm. Because chemical pesticides require substantial water usage, CEE instructs farmers how to employ drip irrigation instead of conventional irrigation techniques. Likewise, farmers are encouraged to rotate cotton with other cash crops such as castor and saffron in order to replenish the soil.

Just outside Mumbai, I managed to catch up with Satish Chukkapalli, who directs the Zameen Fair Trade Co-operative based in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.

Producers with Zameen earn about 4400 rs per kg (slightly less than the farmer focus group) and the NGO provides subsidized Gossypium seeds. In turn, the sales of organic cotton abroad finances farming capital and infrastructure projects such as weighing scales, and the construction of roads for the co-operative. Zameen exports certified organic cotton and producers employ a natural pest treatment or “panchachvaya” in preventing bollworm damage.

The Fair Trade co-operative is not without its own challenges; farmers sometimes sell a good portion of their crop to conventional traders because they can earn more; however, in doing so, producers are not fostering long-term relationships with Fair Trade buyers. “If producers were to offer their goods at a slightly lower rate to long-time buyers, it will serve them well should markets become unfavourable" exclaims Satish. Market prices plummeted in the past decade, making life hard for cotton growers.

The work which organizations like CEE and Zameen do with producers are imperative in times of economic uncertainty. Because cotton requires significant start up costs; farmers who decide to go at it alone usually resort to private money lenders who provide loans at high interest rates because they lack the necessary assets to secure money from a bank. In debt, and with no guidance about how to successfully manage a harvest, many producers risk whatever savings they have in a gambit for the greater good.

Recommendations

Although my time interacting with producers was incredibly short, I would like to share my perspectives and recommendations for policymakers:

  • Private money lenders are quickly becoming the “new middlemen” that are extorting marginalized producers. As a communications initiative, NGOs working in the field should seek to educate producers about the true costs of borrowing money. I see a wonderful opportunity for socially conscious people to capitalize seed banks which can provide low-interest rate loans to producers. I expect seed banks to play a large role for microfinance in the future.
  • Demand for Fair Trade products needs to increase dramatically in order to motivate producers to continue selling through Fair Trade supply chains. I also believe that this movement is ready for mainstreaming just like recycling in the 1980’s, and organic food in the 1990’s. Creative marketing and showing pen-holders about how Fair Trade is an ideal fit for ethical purchasing policies, and corporate social responsibility strategies can serve as possible vehicles in enabling its popularization.
  • As of December 2011, FDI is a hot topic within Indian parliament as large retailers like Wal-Mart may be allowed to operate in India. If the Indian government mandated that Wal-Mart and Tesco source seed fibre at sustainable prices to local producers, it can dramatically improve the livelihoods of these rural producers.
  • I challenge large accounting firms to partner with NGOs and develop business training workshops for rural producers.
  • Contact your MP and tell them that you want Canada to lead negotiations to eliminate the subsidization and dumping of agricultural products at the next WTO ministerial meeting as part of the Doha Round of Development.

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