With Fairtrade Fortnight in full flow, eco expert Jen Marsden recalls her visit to visit the Indian villages that produce the Fairtrade certified and organic Arthur & Henry shirts with dedicated campaigner and Arthur & Henry co-founder, Sreeranga Rajan.
It’s early December and I’m standing in a field in the state of Telangana, India, surrounded by beaming villagers of all ages who are proudly wearing their Fairtrade certified, organic aprons and hats, with large raw cotton sacks ready for the newly harvested cotton. Ever since I first began learning about the perilous cotton industry, I have always dreamed of witnessing the positive alternative: Fairtrade and organic cotton, and here I am.
As soon as we arrive within Peddasakeda, a village of just 70 households, of which 56 are practicing organic and Fairtrade certified farming, we are welcomed with a fanfare of drums and singing. Ladies give us garlands and add tilakas to our foreheads as a sign of honour and welcome. The village have congregated. Men, women and children of all ages are squatted under an awning shading them from the heat of the Indian sun, on handwoven rugs that cover the bumpy red earth.
In 2016-2017, farmers in Peddasakeda produced 90,000 kilograms of organic and Fairtrade cotton, some of which were crafted into quality Arthur & Henry shirts. I am here to understand why this group decided to convert to Fairtrade and organic cotton farming over fourteen years ago, and what their hopes for the future are.
Kursenga Sooji was the first ever farmer to convert to organic with an on-the-ground trailblazing organization, Chetna Organic, in 2004. Today, aged 60, he is a veteran organic and Fairtrade certified farmer. He rejoices in the fact that his now grown children are enjoying the same experiences he has of his vivid youthful memories, spending summers preparing the land, tilling with bullocks, applying animal manure to the soil and praying for rains.
What surprises me most in Peddasakeda is that it is not the community leader of the village who speaks on everyone’s behalf – in fact he is towards the back of the group, undistinguishable from the rest. Many of the group have something to say, both proud to welcome foreigners into their village but also determined to ensure their voices are heard in the lands where their cotton finishes its journey, turned into amongst many other products, Arthur & Henry shirts.
Hired labour is rarely required, as everyone in the village works reciprocally in one another’s fields during the important harvest time, working within three self-help groups that form their wider regional Fairtrade cooperative.
A WORLD APART
After giving their cotton over for sale, the farmers are unaware of where it goes afterwards: to a ginning factory where the lint is separated from the seed, and then onto a production factory that completes the finished product through a complex process of spinning and weaving, with over seven quality assurance checks along the way.
They do not know what the cotton they have toiled over and taken risks for will be turned into, whether it will be a smart shirt, a simple t-shirt or luxurious bedlinen that will be giving someone in a faraway country a good night’s sleep. They are farmers. This particular group are indigenous people, known as the Gond, and are a community that have always been farmers, often seen on the lower rung of India’s tenacious caste system. It was not until recent generations that they became cotton farmers due to increasing global demand for the crop.
Previously, fields would have been filled with a diverse range of vegetable, nuts, seeds and grains, mostly for local consumption, as well as a few cash crops to sell within the domestic market.
Promised larger yields and a high return from seed sellers in the nearby town, fields were converted to cotton, which is where the problems began. For people who rely on the income of just two seasons of cotton growing, dependence on one crop was a dangerous move, mounting debts and uncertainty. Unfortunately, this was enthusiastically encouraged by the nearby Integrated Tribal Development Agency who misguidedly trained farmers in the use of chemical fertilizers and offered free products.
Three to five years later, after initial good returns, yields started falling and the crop became pest resistant, which forced the farmers to turn to more and more expensive chemical pesticides, looking to banks for loans. This is what has led millions of farmers across India to desperation, feeling that the only way out is suicide.
In 2016, the number of suicides in India had reached 10,000, a figure that does not count the thousands of health risks and deaths from pesticide poisoning across the cotton-growing regions.
In 2004, Chetna Organic led a demonstration in a nearby village, and Somji and nine fellow farmers from his village attended, albeit sceptically. Upon arrival, they saw the alternative solution: to move back to more traditional farming where the use of chemicals was removed and intercropping with other crops such as sorghum and jojowa was re-introduced. It made a lot more sense.
The village now have 243 acres of certified organic land after a slow and steady conversion, starting with just one test acre. Forming self-help groups and receiving the benefit of the Fairtrade premium, has turned this village into a more resilient community.
The villagers are vocal and proud, unafraid to request more support and share ideas with the local team of Chetna Organic, that supports them by overseeing their local cooperative with Fairtrade and organic training and certification. Chetna also provides them with access to markets, and sells non-GM seeds – in a transparent and fair way - that comply with international standards.
Close knit and used to relying on one another, it is easy for the Gond farmers here to follow the cooperative system that Fairtrade demands. In fact, as we sit, small babies are being moved from one adult to the next – it is never clear where which family begins or ends. Living in a community like this might be hard to imagine in our individualistic urban societies, yet it is heart-warming to witness, and is a stark reminder that social inclusion is key to the fabric of a happy life.
As consumers, every single time we purchase clothes, we rarely think of the people behind the production, whether it is baby Karthik, who will one day inherit his father’s cotton fields, or the numerous workers in the ginning, spinning and weaving factories. Yet if we want to ensure a more equitable world, it might be time we do.You might ask yourself how you can make a difference. What can consumers do? Arun Ambatipudi, CEO of Chetna Organic has a simple answer:
“Consumers have to support slow fashion and not get enticed by fast fashion because fast fashion is about cheap clothing, about buying more and more clothes for lower prices."
“Slow fashion is about buying long lasting clothes that might be more expensive but they are not only long-lasting clothes but they also contribute back to the people who produce the apparel, whether it is the worker in the factory or the farmer in the field. It’s actually paying back those who are doing or servicing eco systems.”
For Somji and his fellow farmers, they are showing their commitment and belief to their Gond ancestors as guardians of the land. “Farming is for us and for our fellow human beings.”