Voice Messages from Friends: Bhaavya on the Disappearance of Indigenous Knowledge in Cotton Farming

In the series ‘Voice Messages from Friends’, I type down and edit for clarity (with permission) the voice messages friends have sent me explaining to me topics they are passionate about.

Bhaavya is the founder of IROIRO, a zero-waste fashion brand with a circular economy model. IROIRO up-cycles discarded cotton shreds from textile companies. Bhaavya interacts closely with cotton farmers and artisans in her daily life. For further reading, Bhaavya recommends the book A Frayed History.

“Historically, cotton farmers India have had many indigenous types of cotton which have required neither pesticides nor water. Instead, they grew in just rain water or even just  in barren land, because of the adaptability of the plant throughout the ages. Across India, we also had some 128 types of indigenous cotton. But when we were colonized, the colonizers introduced American-style cotton, which basically ruined the lands. They thought that because the cotton farming that we were doing didn’t require a lot of care, we were being  ‘barbaric’. We didn’t actually understand ‘how farming is done’. The American-style cotton was a type of cotton that they could spin on their machines. Indian farmers were forced by law to grow it, and over time, we’ve lost a lot of or own indigenous cotton species.

Some time in the 1960s, the governments realized that this type of cotton is ruining our lands, and they introduced another Western style of cotton:  BT cotton, which is genetically modified cotton.  What it does is that it requires a lot of water – to grow 1 kilogram of BT cotton, you need about 22,500 litres of water – and a lot of pesticides. Now, buying the cotton seeds is rather expensive, and buying the first load of pesticides is cheap. But just like a person becomes very dependent on drugs, the land becomes dependent on pesticides after some time – so just like humans need their fix, the farmers need to keep on buying the pesticides periodically. While buying the seeds does not put farmers in debt, even though those are more on the expensive side, buying the pesticides does because the costs pile up. The seeds and pesticides are marketed by multi-national companies – best known is Monsanto, but that is just one of many. Being indebted to them causes a whole lot of problems which I don’t even want to go into right now.

But there are viable solutions available, like growing organic cotton. There are even many initiatives within India to bring back those indigenous types of cotton. One has been ‘Kala Cotton’, in Katchh in the state of Gujarat. Here in Rajasthan, we are also researching on our own type of fibre, one that used to grow in this area. The thing is that all of this requires a lot of government support and a lot of big-industry support – but for them, somehow, the notion that ‘West knows best’ prevails over anything else. This notion is highly problematic – the government may say things like ‘we should be self-reliant’, but ultimately, they believe that what ‘the West’ is doing is the best for us too. This is very infuriating.”

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