Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Toxic Tears

In 2005, I was in India making a documentary film about the consequences of the Green Revolution for small farmers in rural Punjab, ultimately leading to a wave of suicides. Over the past couple of years, the documentary called "Toxic Tears" has been screened at international film festivals on four continents. The dvd is for sale here. There is a trailer on YouTube. From Pesticides to Organic Farming Pesticides are used ruthlessly in Malwa, the cotton belt of southern Punjab. Cotton is a pest-prone crop, and farmers control the pests by spraying each acre with pesticides at least seventeen times, at R850 a can. Cotton (as well as pesticide use) was introduced to Punjabi farmers at the height of the American induced ‘Green Revolution’ in the early 1980’s, as a large-scale cash crop. The idea of creating revenue for Indian farmers was not such a bad one. Twenty years later, however, it is undeniably yet painfully evident that this was a false hope. Small and marginal farmers in the Sangrur district are all crying for mercy, as they are deeply indebted. With their false promises of ‘high yields’, western-based and extremely lucrative multi-national companies, such as super giant Monsanto, have lured the poor farmers into buying their products relentlessly, believing that someday, they will hit the jackpot. However, that jackpot never came, and in its place came suicide. Pesticides are one of the leading causes of the farmers’ deficits. For each can they buy represents the amount of debt they accumulate. Namely, the price the farmers receive for their harvests from the government barely cover the costs of the other inputs, such as hybrid seeds and diesel for their tractor and tube-well, technology that also came in the Green Revolution package. Besides being economically unviable, pesticides are disastrous for the environment. If you were in Malwa twenty years ago, you would have been surrounded by hundreds of beautiful peacocks. Nowadays you are extremely fortunate to come across one lonely wailing peacock. Ironically, the peacock is an Indian symbol of prosperity. Pesticides, and a decreasing living space due to the large-scale agriculture taking over all the land, have sent the peacocks of Sangrur to near extinction. This is just one blatant example of the dangers of pesticide use. Pesticides do not only kill the insects, pests, weeds or fungi that they were designed to kill, but they kill many other insects and plants that would otherwise act as natural pest control, such as spiders, flies, worms and beetles. Take a walk around some cotton crops, and you will see that the natural bio-diversity of the ecosystem has been reduced to two elements: dry earth, with a toxic-looking green coating, and the cotton plants. Besides the farmers taking their own lives, many other species are being killed by pesticide use. All life in Sangrur is slowly dying out. Furthermore, the chemicals used in pesticides are highly dangerous. They not only poison plants and animals, but also humans. This seems quite logical at first thought, and somehow the farmers have understood this, as consuming pesticides is the most popular suicide method to date. Yet, ironically, this idea has not penetrated to the daily activities of Sangrur’s citizens. From the fields, pesticides, which the locals were taught to call ‘medicine’, find their way into the ground water, which, due to its salinity and high pesticide content, farmers have to dig deeper for year after year. The high levels of chemicals from pesticides and heavy metals found in the drinking water have incidentally most likely led to a high percentage of cancer cases in the area. Ask any doctor in the area about the contamination of the water by pesticides, and he will tell you that he personally only drinks water that has been filtered, for that reason. The pesticide sprayers, who have not been informed that they need to cover their skin and air passages while spraying, run to the doctor month after month, with complaints ranging from migraine headaches to dizziness, vomiting, heart and lung problems and skin rashes. Meanwhile, their children are playing innocently in the canals next to the fields, on a hot summer’s day, that are most likely teeming with the pesticides sprayed on the crops less than a foot away. Mothers use pesticide containers to keep food in, or to drink water from. If one compares this reckless behaviour to the astronaut-like suits Western scientists and farmers wear for protection when they are dealing with poisonous chemicals, one can be confronted with the sinking sensation that the poor Indian farmers got the raw end of the deal. The awful truth of it is that there is no absolute certainty in the long-term effects of chemical exposure for human health. Therefore, we must also question the safety of the farm products such as rice and wheat that are chemically induced during production, which the majority of Indians consume on a daily basis. Ask any ‘educated’ people in the area, and they will tell you they would prefer to eat organic foods, if available, and even if it costs more. In the village of Chotiyan, there is one organic farmer. Virtually everyone in his surroundings laugh at him. They were taught that this natural form of agriculture is ‘backward’ and old-fashioned. ‘Backwardness’ seems to be practically a mortal sin for the residents of Chotiyan, who were instructed to believe that progress is key, that ‘more is better’, and that ‘high yields’ are the only way to achieve economic prosperity, the ultimate salvation from the past, i.e. ‘the psychological pressure to modernise’ (Norberg-Hodge 1994: 81). Yet Geewa Singh stuck to his guns, his traditions, and his money. Not only does he believe that God created nature perfectly, and therefore we should not interfere by using chemicals or technology, he is also a very smart economist. He does not spend any money on inputs, therefore, any money he receives for his outputs, will be profit. Although he has not jumped on the chemical and technological bandwagon, he was joined the cash crop frenzy. He has been sowing and harvesting natural cotton, wheat, rice as well as vegetables for his family’s consumption, for the past twenty years, without even knowing that this is called ‘organic farming’. It is, you see, the way farmers have always traditionally farmed in southern Punjab. With cow and plough, and pick and shovel. No muss, no fuss. Geewa Singh should be seen as a model farmer of the future. He has no debts, he can take care of his family, he is happy and has no complaints. He is not one of the suicide statistics in the media, but he is also not a glutton-for-punishment consumer of pesticides sold to him by wealthy pesticide dealers, who in turn, are sponsored by large multinational corporations such as Monsanto. Even the local pesticide dealer admits that he gets rich off the backs of poor farmers, while he flies around the world on ‘company trips’, and meanwhile grows his own food organically, because “you don’t know what the health risks are”. There are very few people benefiting from the current large-scale agricultural system. These few (the middlemen and the big men) are earning disproportionate amounts of money, while and because, the small farmers are sinking deeper into debt. One must question a system in which the producer, that is doing all the heavy work, is not receiving the largest share, but instead losing out on everything. Organic farming presents an obvious solution to a complex and increasingly devastating problem. This will relieve the farmers of their debts, as they will start making profits without spending anything. Furthermore, it will allow them to regain their independence as producers of farm products, instead of being dependant consumers of the agribusiness system, and its feudal scavengers: the local moneylenders. Removing the middleman will prove to bring balance into a haywire system: the consumer’s rupees actually making it into the hands of the producers. If all of Sangrur’s farmers were to switch back to organic farming, we may even see the return of the peacock, and more bio-diversity, as well as a drop in the cancer rate within the next fifty years. Even more alarmingly, the problems caused by the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ and agrochemical giants such as Monsanto, are not unique in Punjab, or even in India for that matter. Monsanto has virtually bought up the entire ‘third’ world. The agrochemical industry leaders have dictated the agricultural systems in Europe, North and South America, as well as Asia. Hand in hand with the WTO, they influence governments to introduce cash crops as a way of raising the all-important GDP and consequently, development funds. These monocultures destroy the biodiversity of ecosystems as well as cultural diversity. In turn, ‘high yields’ produce cheap food products affordable for the poor worldwide, and only the rich and educated have access to healthy, natural and safe organic foods. ‘Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization’ (Scott 1998: 8). The WTO ensures that large-scale, highly technological and subsidised farmers in the west receive the same prices for their crops as poor, small-scale farmers in the east, with nothing but their bare hands to work with. If this competition seems unfair, the products from the west are sold in the east, and vice versa, wasting energy unnecessarily, shuttling the same products across the globe, instead of selling local products on the local markets, at local prices. My heroes Arundhati Roy calls it ‘Confronting Empire’; Helena Norberg-Hodge calls it ‘Counter Development’; and Vandana Shiva calls it ‘Food Security’. It all depends on which vantage point you want to approach it to give it a name, but it all comes down to the same movement. A movement that is the only apparent logical way forward into an increasingly uncertain future. This movement will save our souls, our nature. It is the only answer to the powerful elite that is fuelling everything from warfare for energy supply to the vegetables on your dinner plate. They have created our increasingly rational-economics-driven global society, which is dictating the largest scale industrial operations as well as the most intimate human interactions. It is time that we, as individuals, as families and friends, take our own responsibility in our global society, as citizens of the earth, and join the opposing movement. If you think of everything that has been accomplished and created in the past century, then certainly you must realise that nothing is impossible. There is still time, for your own sake, for your loved ones, and your descendants. There is no need to feel helpless against the influence of superpowers. They are few, we are many. The old slogan ‘strength in numbers’ is always relevant. (2005)

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