Cotton is one of the most polluting industries in the world. India is the second largest producer after Turkey.
Although cotton only occupies five percent of cultivated land in India, it accounts for more than half of the total pesticides used in farming there.
The cost to the country has not just been environmental.
The Green revolution in the late sixties introduced new hybrid seeds which were highly dependent on man made fertilizers and pesticides.
The overuse of chemicals has resulted in poisoned water sources and loss of land fertility often with deadly consequences.
Bojju Bai is an organic farmer in the Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh. She says borrowing from loansharks can be dangerous:
“Farmers growing transgenic cotton borrow money from moneylenders to buy chemical fertilisers, pesticides and seeds. In case of crop failure, due to adverse conditions, like no rainfall and pests, the farmer is not in a position to give the money back. Many feel forced to commit suicide”.
In October and November, 45 farmers committed suicide here. Most of them drank pesticide. It is thought more than 17,500 farmers killed themselves between 2002 and 2006.
But Bojju Bai found another answer. She converted to organic cotton four years ago.
“Before going organic I took a loan from a private middle man where I paid a 10,000 rupees loan per season and I had no income after paying the loan and interest. Now I have some benefits”.
Five years ago ‘Project Chetna’ was launched in response to this problem.
And two years ago, the Chetna Organic Farming Association was created to encourage Indian producers to go organic.
Farmers were trained on going back to eco-friendly practices such as using green fertilizers or cow urine as bio pesticides.
Siddharth Tripathy of Chetna Organic explains their aims:
“We are trying to improve the livelihood options of small farmers through making their farming systems more sustainable, more profitable, and it started as a supply chain initiative desk”.
Farmers are learning that you don’t have to depend on chemicals to get a good crop.
B.G. Mahesh is the programme manager for Chetna Organic. He says there are many other solutions:
“There are lots of ecological remedies..such as farmers reploughing during the summer season, or planting trap crops that attract the pests which would otherwise have attacked cotton. Other methods include the use of botanical sprays, these are made up of nothing but plant and leaf extracts. And then we have the completely natural examples like the insects in nature which feed on the pests”.
The drive to go organic aims to support and generate other incomes apart from cotton.
Kohinur in the district of Adilabad, is one of the six villages implementing a watershed programme.
Two years ago the lake here didn’t exist. Now farmers can sell and eat fish from it, and also use the water for their crops.
Pendur Sungu is part of the watershed group.He explains the system they have in place:
“We’re conserving water to increase the productivity of the crop: This controls soil erosion and maintains the fertility of the soil”.
Farmers cannot depend on just one crop because if it fails they have nothing. They need food crops, cattle and biomass plants.
In Kohinur, ten landless women were given the opportunity to create a nursery for fruit and biomass plants. This season they will share an income of 10,000 rupees.
Yashoda is one of the women given this opportunity. She speaks of the profit she has made:
“We have produced 60,000 plants since February. 20,000 of them have been sold, earning 60,000 rupees”.
More and more farmers are converting to organic farming in India. Over 5,500 farmers have joined Chetna Organic since 2004.
The Association provides access to markets, negotiates better prices and establishes links with retailers.
Bhaskar Chandra Adhikari is the State Coordinator for Chetna Organic in Andhra Pradesh. He speaks of the conversion to organic cotton that is happening there.
“In some villages we saw all the village members considering going organic and all the fields were organic. They aren’t only producing cotton, they’re also producing soya and red gram. We identified about 1,520 villages like that, so it’s a great achievement”.
The sustainable chain of cotton production arrives directly to customers. Quality is checked, organic cotton is traceable and it is internationally certified.