Friday, 12 July 2013


LOHASia invited us to write about farmer suicides in India, and we asked award-winning filmmaker and journalist, Pamela Nowicka, to help. Pamela lived in India for eight years and interviewed farmers in Tamil Nadu, south India, for her film, Climate Change? No Thanks! She has extensively researched the issues of farmer suicide, GMO/Bt cotton, drought and climate change.

It’s hard to imagine life in rural India. No running water, no or intermittent electricity, problematic education and healthcare are the reality for the 500 million people who live in villages. Women collect water from a pump or well, the bushes are the toilet, and extreme weather (40c+) in the summer, monsoons, droughts and flooding, are part of life.

For the rich, in guarded, gated communities, surrounded by retinues of servants, life is privileged beyond belief; for the rest, it’s a struggle to survive.

Around half the kids, and a smaller percentage of adults are malnourished; even low-quality healthcare is several hours travel away. Many rural communities haven’t heard of the internet, let alone have access to it. The caste system keeps people firmly in their place...generation after generation. Resistance, particularly in rural areas, is met with abuse, violence, and, frequently death. Farmers live on a knife edge, dependent on a good and timely monsoon - not too much, not too little  - to water their crops, earn a living and repay their debts.

Enter US transnational corporation (TNC) Monsanto, determined to shoehorn cotton farmers into accepting their genetically modified (GM/Bt)cotton seeds, locking them into an expensive round of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and non-propagating seeds, while promising that the cotton crop produced would be more profitable.

The farmers were an easy and lucrative target. In the absence of objective information, coerced by a bureaucracy which sides with the powerful, and desperate to improve their fragile lifestyles, farmers paid for the expensive seeds and chemicals with loans from money-lenders at extortionate rates of interest.

But, as documented by Indian journalist P Sainath instead of improving lives, over the last two decades, tens of thousands killed themselves.

Why did Monsanto’s promises of a better crop turn into an epidemic of misery?  If the crop fails, which it frequently does due to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, far from improved profits, the farmer is unable to even pay back the money-lender (often the loan will be hundreds of times higher than the original amount). And the expensive GM/Bt cotton crop kept failing.

A report to the Indian Parliament, does not mince words.“The farmers blamed the policies of the government... In particular... Bt cotton...with the inception of Bt cotton, input costs had gone high resulting in farmers falling into the debt trap...those wanting to cultivate non-Bt cotton were not able to do so. Bt cotton was pushing the farmers into the vicious cycle of debt and being unable to repay the debt due to decreasing earning farmers were under severe stress and developing a feeling of loss of their self-respect which was ultimately pushing them to commit suicide. ..

“The committee also (met) widows who in the aftermath of their husband’s suicide were hard pressed to make ends meet. The villagers implored the committee to voice their request to the concerned central authorities to ban farming of Bt cotton in the country.” (my itals).

Rural India does not have alternative employment opportunities for exhausted, demoralised debt-ridden farmers. In a culture where the watchword is ‘what will people think?’,  it’s understandable that tens of thousands of farmers saw no other way out than to take their own lives...often, horrifically, by drinking the very pesticides used on their crops, in a painful and protracted death.

For a fortunate minority, the switch to organic farming has been a lifeline. Farmers I met http:// who had switched from conventionally farmed crops (mangos) to organic, were evangelical about how this was a life-saver. This litany of praise is repeated where ever farmers have taken up organic cultivation. Some describe chemical cotton farming as being ‘against the course of Nature’.

Freed from getting into debt for expensive GMO seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, organic farmers are released from a chemical treadmill. Traditional farming methods and seeds, with an emphasis on sustainability and maintaining the quality of soil and water, give a healthier lifestyle and better income.

This is the context in which Nukleus is operating. It’s a global issue, and consumers too have their part to play.  We need to demand more organic cotton products, that don’t kill farmers, pollute ecosystems and contribute to global ecocide. We want nice clothes and to look good. But if the clothes we wear are stained in the blood of dead farmers, and our to-die-for fashion is killing streams, soil and animals, it’s hard to see how we can enjoy wearing them.