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The Dying Fields – Where Items Begin Their Lives

This project is about the problems cotton farmers in India are facing due to GM cotton seeds (Bt cotton) flooding the market. GM seeds are genetically modified seeds and BT is the type of insecticide in the seeds that kills the bollworm, an insect that devours the cotton plant.

India is the 2nd largest producer of cotton in the world. Since 1995 there have been over 270,000 suicides amongst cotton farmers. With crippling increases in input costs, a low minimum support price from the Government, heavily subsidized US cotton – which has flooded the global market bringing prices down. Add to that the impact of climate change, and the result: Indian cotton farmers are now involved in the largest wave of suicides in history. Sinking into a spiral of debt, they take out loans from the bank to cover the increasing costs of Bt seeds, when the crops fail due to a poor monsoon (a likely event given Bt cotton is design for use in irrigated fields) the farmer turns to an unregulated moneylender who charges extremely high rates of interest, a second crop failure or a low performing crop can send the farmer so deep in debt he feels he has no option but suicide.

As well as subsidizing their own rich farmers (The US-based Environmental Working Group notes that 81% of cotton subsidies go to just 10% of the farms) America. Brazil took the US to the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO to challenge its cotton subsidies. Brazil won and the WTO ruled that US subsidies are illegal and contravene world trade rules. The US has failed to reduce its subsidies and instead bribed Brazil by offering to subsidize Brazil’s cotton farmers with $147 million per year as well as continuing to illegally subside their own farmer. With the decline in cotton prices due to high subsidies in America, the increasing costs of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, along with the impact of climate change and the temperamental weather patterns, cotton farming in India has become impossible.

Before GM Bt seeds flooded the Indian seed market in 2002, a traditional cotton seed was relatively inexpensive to grow, farmers could cultivate the crop and save the seeds for the following season, they would swap seeds with other farmers, ensuring the following generations of cotton seed would be best suited for their climate and environment. GM seeds were introduced into the market in 2002 and Bt cotton produces higher yields. Bt cotton seeds can cost between 4-10 times as much as the traditional seeds and require irrigation. About 80% of farmland in Maharashtra (India’s cotton belt) is rain fed as irrigation is too expensive, furthermore the companies that sell these seeds only allow them to be sold as hybrid cultivars which prevent farmers from replanting them the following year, every year they need to buy more seeds.

A lot of the farmers buy the seeds because they have no other option, they also see other farmers doing well with them and see that as an incentive. GM seeds cost a lot more and so they will often have to borrow money to buy them. In the larger farms they can afford irrigation systems which means the plants can be watered at regular intervals instead of relying on the rain of the monsoon for water, often the monsoon will not come when expected and then the crops fail.

A blackboard with a list of all the GM Bt seeds available for sale in a seed shop in Yavatmal, India. Bt cotton was the first GM crop introduced to India in 2002, after a low initial uptake, Bt cotton has now spread to over 85% of the cotton area.

Mahadev Rav Sarde a small scale cotton farmer from the village Kalamb in Yavatmal. He is holding a packet of GM Bt cotton seeds, he refused to take the seeds out of the plastic bag as he said they are toxic and bad for his skin. The farmers know that the seeds are harmful to themselves and the environment but they feel they have no choice as traditional seeds produce much lower yields and they are struggling to make a profit as it is.

A worker spraying the cotton plants with a pesticide, These chemicals are extremely harmful and toxic, yet the workers often walk barefooted and without any masks or protection.  Bt cotton was created to produce a toxin that will kill the bollworm – a pest that is particularly harmful to the cotton plant in India. Initially, the seeds reduced the amount of pesticides required, bollworm has now developed resistance to Bt cotton.

A cart loaded up with pesticides and the tank used for spraying the fields. Since the Bollworm developed a resistance to Bt cotton the plants need to be sprayed much more and with chemicals that are extremely toxic to both the farmers and the environment, most of which are banned in the west. The farmers are aware of the damage GM seeds are causing to themselves and the land but feel they have no other option.

A list of all the cotton farmers who have committed suicide in the small village Kalamb, Yavatmal, India. Most of the women in the village are illiterate and unsure of what their rights are so they are getting help from the head of the village Vinod Kale. He is helping them to put together claims for the relief package that the government set up in result of the suicide crisis. This is a challenge as there are many loopholes in the system and people complain about the corruption of the government. The widows are entitled to receive up to 100,000 rupees (although this figure keeps varying depending on how much criticism the government is facing from the media) in compensation as long as the land was in the name of the deceased, the deceased was in debt when he took his life and that debt was the cause of the suicide. Out of 37 cases he has helped with over the last few years, only 3 have been successful.

Usha found her husband Marotrao dead in their cotton field in Yavatmal, Maharashtra one year after their wedding; he had taken his own life by drinking the very pesticide he used on his crop. Marotrao was a small-scale cotton farmer; they had 3 hectares which was given to them by Usha’s family when they married. His crop failed due to the lack of rain, only 9% of land in Yavatmal has irrigation so the farmers rely on rain, which often does not come. After already taking out a loan from a money lender to cover the cost of last years BT seeds and the required pesticides and fertilizers, he had nothing left and with no crop to sell at market, nothing for the next season. After his death the government sold his land and used the money to pay off his debt, Usha was left with nothing.

The cotton plant, Yavatmal, Maharashtra, India.

An elderly woman picking cotton in a field in Yavatmal. Cotton picking is arduous work, Workers spend long hours in the sweltering heat and direct sunshine picking cotton to supply developed countries with cheap, disposable fashions. Although the cotton is soft, the boll’s which hold the cotton are sharp and the nature off picking it means that the worker’s hands get repetitively struck and cut, Her fingers are red raw and bleeding from this work. 

A bag of freshly picked cotton waiting to be taken to the ginning mill where the cotton is processed and compressed into bales then shipped to storage yards, textile mills or other countries where it will be processed into yarn or cloth and transformed into clothes for sale on our high streets.

A farmer preparing his cart and cows to take his cotton to the ginning mill where the cotton fiber will be separated from the seed bolls and dust particles before the raw fiber lint is compressed into bales and shipped to storage yards, textile mills or other countries where it will be processed into yarn or cloth. The primary product manufactured from cotton is clothing, which accounts for some 60% of the world’s total cotton production. European and North American consumers account for around 75% of world clothing imports.

Workers sorting through the cotton at the ginning mill, where the cotton fibre is separated from the seed bolls and dust particles before the raw fibre lint is compressed into bales and shipped to storage yards. The workers are paid a minimal fee, farmers are lucky when they can cover their output costs.

I grew up on the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland and my grandparents were farmers, I have always been interested in producing work about the land and about people who work it and our relationship to it.

This story was really important to me because maybe more with clothes production than food, where the items begin their lives did not seem to be that important to people when they would decide where to buy their clothes.  The supply chain in clothing production is long, complex and can be quite dark. Cheap clothes are available on our high streets to fill the quick fix demand and instead of buying quality items we fill our wardrobes with flimsy, poor quality products, and these products come at a price.  The demand for cheap cotton has really impacted how these farmers produce cotton now.

I spent a few years researching this project, in between jobs and whenever I had time. I contacted a number of charities and organizations who were working with the farmers or who understood the issues around these seeds and gathered as much information as I could before I went. I found a fixer out in India who I met in Mumbai and we traveled together to Maharashtra, (the central belt of India where the cotton grows) and together we went about trying to find farmers and widows who had lost their husbands through suicide to talk to us.

Workers taking a tea break at the ginning mill, where the cotton fibre is separated from the seed bolls and dust particles before the raw fibre lint is compressed into bales and shipped to storage yards, textile mills or other countries where it will be processed into yarn or cloth and transformed into clothes for sale on our high streets.

There was a lot to do before we could start interviewing and photographing and without Rakesh (He’s the fixer) it would have been impossible – I couldn’t speak the language and it was quite a remote part of India which made things a bit harder than I had hoped. We spent a few days trying to find contacts and covering a lot of miles and eventually we found a few people so we were ready to start work.

Initially I would interview our subjects with Rakesh translating as we went, I wanted to gather as much information as possible, this took quite a lot of time and I think a lot got lost in translation but it was a good way to try and get an understanding of how the story would evolve and what we could photograph.

Workers taking a tea break at the ginning mill, where the cotton fibre is separated from the seed bolls and dust particles before the raw fibre lint is compressed into bales and shipped to storage yards, textile mills or other countries where it will be processed into yarn or cloth and transformed into clothes for sale on our high streets.

We visited a few cotton farms where the cotton was being picked, factories where it would be processed and sent to market and then to a number of different people who were connected to the issue to hear their story. We met with the 3 widows and one man who was trying to help the women receive the payout the Government had set up for exactly their situation – receiving this money had become impossible for them because there were so many cases of suicide connected to cotton farming and with many loopholes in the process (like if the land was in someone else’s name which was very common as the farmers were poor, then there would be no payout). As you have seen with Usha, these circumstances made it impossible for women like her to receive anything and often they were left with no land and no money to live off.

Through the images what I was trying to convey was the process of cotton production as well as interspersing portraits of people affected by the demands for more, cheaper cotton. The process of cotton production was important to me because it’s a long one, from the seed to shelf there are a lot of people and work involved, it takes a long time and a lot of care from the farmer for the seed to grow into a plant which can then be transformed into cotton, without considering the dying, designing, stitching, production and transportation it is a long process, and when you think about the price of a t-shirt in Primark and consider the supply chain it just does not make sense.

I didn’t really decide to become an artist; I left school at 15 with no qualifications and wasn’t really sure what to do, I found an entry-level course in Edinburgh in media production which I got a place on.  There I met a very amazing teacher who really encouraged and inspired me to explore photography more, and that was really it for me. He helped me get a job working for a press agency up there, which I did for a few years before moving to London.  In London I did a variety of different photography jobs, mainly assisting and learning about photography, I worked a lot with an underwater photographer and at a set building studio which built very wonderful, extravagant sets for photography shoots, during this time I did not really work on any personal work, it took me a while to build up the confidence and find the time; the cotton farmers project was really my first proper personal project.

I had always had my eye on the MA in documentary photography and photojournalism at London College of communication and it was something I really wanted to do, but because of money or time I never felt I was in the place until I came back from shooting my project in India. I applied and was offered a place and it was here that I really changed the way I work, my work has become a lot more conceptual and it’s only in the last year I would ever even consider myself as an ‘artist’.  I think if I went back to do the cotton farmers project now, I would do it in a very different way.

Ideas, research and exploring ways of working I find really exciting, I do suffer from a lot of self-doubt though, so even when I think I have a good idea, I have a tendency to do the work and then get to a stage where I feel the whole project is just a big pile of crap and completely pointless; this part can be crippling but I think it’s quite normal and I know I can be very hard on myself, I am definitely starting to notice a cycle in the process of making work and the more I understand about how each stage is necessary to move forward the easier I think I will be on myself!

I love imperfection and a kind of rawness in work and that’s what gets me excited about other people’s work.  I’m a very sensitive person and the work which speaks to me the most is definitely the kind of work that bares a little bit of the artist’s personality and vulnerability.

I am mainly influenced by landscape and nature and writing.  I do look at a lot of other work but I think it’s really by being in the world I find inspiration. Reading and research is extremely important to me in making work and this was something that I got from the most wonderful teacher on the MA – Max Houghton, she is a writer and I think this was most definitely the biggest shift I had in my way of working, she introduced me to a huge selection of nature writers and beautiful texts which had a profound effect on me.

One of those writers, who has really inspired my work is Robert Macfarlane – his book Landmarks was really the inspiration for my last big project which explored the land development of a peat bog in the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. He discusses beautifully the relationship between landscape and language and collects a dictionary of terms specific to the Island, he explores the idea of memory maps and navigation aids which are learnt through language and from understanding a landscape that can only ever be passed down through experience of the place, he writes “An act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding. Words act as compass; place-speech serves literally to en-chant the land – to sing it back into being, and to sing one’s being back into it.”

I was really interested in exploring how the culture of people can be felt in a place and this book was full of so many wonderful examples of exactly that.

Another two books which were so inspiring and helpful when researching the peat bog project were: Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language amongst the Western Apache by Keith Basso and The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Both books are beautifully written and touch on the same thing that McFarlane was discussing – by singing or speaking the land, the land itself exists and in doing so it defines and shapes who we are. All three books look at the deep connections cultures have with a place, and how through the progress of technological development, we seem to have lost the connections.


Lynda Laird

Documentary photographer focusing on social and environmental issues.

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