Fairtrade cotton, a hope for the peasants of Odisha in India

To access the small plots of cotton, you have to make your way between the yellow lentil bushes that can rise up to 2 meters high. The earth is red, the dry grass creaks under the sole, and clusters of insects swirl in all directions. In this remote region of Odisha, an Indian state located southwest of Calcutta, the terrain is rugged by the hills of Niyamgiri, whose subsoil is known to harbor bauxite, coal, iron and manganese.

Akshaya Kumar Sahu says that the surrounding peaks, with their bluish profile, are “The kingdom of leopards and wild elephants”. This man, in his forties, has been piloting a food security program for almost four years which concerns 500 small landowners and about 50 landless peasants. It helps them improve their standard of living and reduce their impact on the environment by bringing them into the fair trade cotton sector.

A system which protects farmers from any loss-making sales, thanks to the respect of the minimum price guaranteed by the State. And which makes it possible to obtain a development bonus financed by textile brands in the form of license fees, on condition that the peasants come together in a cooperative and invest this money in collective projects (microcredit, irrigation, housing, education, health …). Provided, also, not to cultivate GMOs, to outlaw child labor and to respect all the conventions of the International Labor Organization relating to health and safety at work.

The Covid-19 epidemic, which continues to be in full swing in India, has posed serious cash flow problems due to the closures of clothing stores and the cancellations of orders in the textile industry. In early spring, farmers had no choice but to sell their cotton on the conventional market after the first lockdown was lifted, at ridiculously low prices.

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But the fair trade system is making it possible for the moment to hold its own, thanks to development bonuses and free distributions of non-GMO cotton seeds for the 2020-2021 season.

A water-intensive culture

On the outskirts of Kanikupa village, where seventy farmers work, the women arrive at dawn. They are between 45 and 70 years old and spend their days unhooking from their delicate hands the white cotton wool that strews the fields scorched by the sun. The cotton, pearled with dew, lands in a fold of their sari, before joining large bags. One of the gatherers, who speaks the language of her tribe, the Khond, says she comes there “Eight hours a day after two kilometers of walking”, in order to be able to feed his three daughters. Another boasts of picking up “25 kilos of cotton per day”.

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