Cotton is the most important crop in the world textile industry, yet an estimated 100 million rural households who produce it are living in poverty. Farmers and Fairtrade are working together so cotton growers can improve both their livelihoods and their lives.
The price of cotton has slumped in the last 30 years, while the cost of producing the crop has risen. A long-term decline in income means that farmers in Asia, West Africa and elsewhere are struggling to survive.
A cotton farmer’s small area of land has to provide enough income for food, healthcare, school fees, seeds and tools. Any fall in cotton prices can have serious implications for a farmer and their family, especially as farmers have little power to negotiate with buyers to secure better prices. Often farmers must hand over their crop for less than it cost to produce it.
Cotton farmers face additional challenges: climate change, intensive use of dangerous chemicals, and scarce water supplies. Government subsidies for cotton farmers in developed countries, particularly the US, mean small-scale farmers can’t compete with the artificially low prices. And the impact stretches beyond individual farmers: without income from the cotton trade, there is less money for developing countries to invest in health, education and other vital services.
The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh in 2013 highlighted the horrific conditions that can exist in the clothing supply chain, but the farmers at the beginning of the process are still invisible. Fairtrade works at each stage of cotton production, from farming, ginning (separating the cotton fibre from the seed), spinning and weaving to manufacturing to help overcome the problems that exist.
Fairtrade Cotton in Action
More than 20,000 farmers across India work with Agrocel Pure & Fair Cotton Growers’ Association. Formed in 2005, the organisation’s aim is to improve the lives of small-scale farmers. One such focus is the Organic & Fairtrade Cotton Project, located in southern India. Farmers organise themselves into associations to help meet organic and Fairtrade standards, improve farming techniques and reduce costs. When cotton farmers are able to earn more it helps keep younger farmers working on the land instead of drifting towards the cities in search of a better living.
Five Fairtrade certified organic cotton farmers’ groups in the states of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Karnataka are part of this scheme. The association in Rapar, Gujarat, was one of the first participants. This previously unorganised group of 50 farmers was formally established in 2005 and gained Fairtrade certification.
The success of the association has enabled them to extend membership to farmers in the neighbouring Surendranagar district and they now have a joint membership of 1930.
The farmers have decided to spend their Fairtrade Premium payments on short-term loan schemes for farmers to finance improvements to their farms; payments for the medical costs of poor farmers; irrigation schemes to conserve rainwater; books and clothes for schoolchildren; farmer education and training; a tractor for communal use; and a project to help them create their own organic fertilizer.
Cotton farmer Khima Ranchhod is looking forward to replacing the thatched roof on his family’s mud-walled house with tiles.
“A higher income means we will be able to increase production by buying more organic manure to improve the soil,” he says. “Then we will be able to make improvements to our house.”