INDIA: Cotton Farmers Reap Hope from New Techniques

  • by Nitin Jugran Bahuguna (warangal, india)
  • Inter Press Service

That was during the mid-1990s, when many cotton farmers in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra had taken out loans to expand their areas of cultivation. But competition from U.S. growers with huge subsidies led to declining prices, while drought and pest outbreak contributed to crop failure and poor yields. Not long after, both southern states began to be awash with stories of suicide by farmers crippled with debt.

The Padmas, however, were among those who were able to withstand the bad times. Today they have reason to rejoice even as they continue to toil under the scorching sun.

For the past three years, they have been part of a project that has seen cotton-growing farmers enjoy high yields with less capital. Among the project’s highlights as well is the use of organic fertilisers to produce quality cotton — a move that has been good not only for the environment, but apparently also for the farmers’ health.

'My health had deteriorated after using pesticide sprays, causing me giddiness, fainting spells, headaches, and stomach upsets,' says Meruga. 'But now, all these irritants have gone.'

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) India launched the project on a small-scale in 2006, with just around 40 farmer-families in Warangal district, where Meruga and her husband live. Today, the green venture covers 44 villages in Warangal and involves 4,084 farmers altogether.

Using the ‘Best Management Practices’ (BMPs) model, the project entails promoting nutrients in the soil; managing water in cotton fields; getting farmers to attend Farmer Field Schools (FFS) set up in villages; and training these farmers on managing pests, water, and nutrients.

'I use an organic manure called ‘Amrutha Jalam’, which I prepare along with botanical extractions for pest control,' reports Meruga. 'I received training on how to make these preparations at the FFS in my village.'

Before the project, she adds, 'I would spend 7,000 rupees (about 149 dollars) for pesticide sprays and fertilisers for one acre (.404 hectare) of land. But with this new method, my costs are very little, just 300 rupees (6.39 dollars)!'

Cotton is a thirsty crop that often requires large quantities of water and chemicals during cultivation. Being a cotton-growing state, Andhra Pradesh uses vast volumes of water for irrigation and has been responsible for a fourth of India’s total chemical use. These have resulted in negative effects for both the environment and people’s health, even as these have meant considerable financial investments for the farmers.

Vamshi Krishna, WWF-India’s project manager at Warangal, says his organisation’s BMPs venture aims to reduce the use of water and chemicals while increasing family incomes. He quips, 'We have managed to break many trends and we have great hopes for the future.'

For sure, the Farmer Field Schools have been instrumental in motivating change among the project participants. The training course runs for 20 weeks during the high season from August to November. The participants meet twice a week to learn more about cultivation techniques, as well as about water and environmental issues.

The cotton growers also work on trial plots where they test co-planting of crops, look at which pests are active, and use biological pesticides.

'I was attracted by what I saw as the low-cost and no-cost concept of BMPs,' says farmer and project participant Alley Rajamouli, 35, explaining why he decided to go to a Farmer Field School. He has since discovered that growing maize and cotton close to each other is a way of reducing insect damage.

Rajamouli has started applying what he has learned and he likes the results. 'With tank silt application and practicing inter crops and border crops, I have greatly reduced expenditure for pesticides and fertilisers in my field,' he says. 'I have also seen that less water is required using BMPs.'

Fellow project participant Rajita Nandsee, 25, has also found that he does not have to apply as much plant-based preparations as he used to do with chemical sprays. Says the cotton farmer: 'In the past, I would spray my plants 20 to 40 times per season. But with preparations made from plant extracts like neem, I only need to spray six, seven times a season.'

And then there’s this bonus, she says: 'Biopesticides do not harm the ‘good’ beetles that eat up the pests.'

WWF—India estimates that project farmers’ average use of chemical pesticides has been halved, while their use of chemical fertilisers has been cut by 30 percent. The project farmers’ water use has also dropped by 50 percent even as their average earnings are now up by some 40 percent.

In the past, many farmers here had used chemicals on the advice of the chemical industry. But one of the project’s outcomes is that the farmers are making decisions by discussing different possible solutions together, with an emphasis on organic methods.

As the good news spreads, many other farmers have been signing up to take part in the project.

Nandsee, a mother of three, meanwhile says, 'In the future, we hope to increase our income so that we can pay for a good education for our children.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service