Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Organic cotton farming in Uganda

In Northern Uganda, in the region around Lira, there is as much as 27 thousand farmers (!!!) growing organic cotton. The farmers are united in a cooperative with chosen representatives. The organic cotton project here is started by and running through the Dutch company BoWeevil. The cotton from the Phenix factory in Kampala which I visited the day before, origins from this project as well. As might do the Edun or M&S clothes you are wearing on this very moment.

I went to see the project and visited some farmers. It was quite a trip from Kampala, it takes about six hours on crazy roads. As I understood, this area has been under control by the cruel guerilla Lord’s Resistance Army until very recently. Now there are peace negotiations, so the area is calmer and the farmers, who lived in refugee camps, are living on their lands again. So until one, two years ago they had to go to their lands with fear and go back to the camps before the evening fell. One could understand that’s not an easy way to work. Okay, no Army anymore, but on the way back our driver refused to stop at the beautiful Nile waterfalls because there was a danger for guerilla bandits.

The farming life looked all quite romantic to me, traditional huts, some chickens running around, people hanging around or working a bit. The farmers have small fields with different crops. They do not make use of irrigation, so depend on the rain seasons that occur a few times per year. Next to cotton they grow sesame, red peppers and vegetables for local consumption. The income from cotton and sesame, which is exported, gives income which the farmers can use to send their children to school or buy medicines from. From the extra income they gain with growing organic, the farmers can afford building small houses instead of huts. This is a development from the last years, and if it continues, traditional huts might disappear pretty fast from the landscape.

This is the ambivalence of development. On the one hand it is a positive achievement for the farmer, having a good roof, a house with a door that you can close of, on the other hand it can be a loss of cultural value. An even stronger ambivalence I felt when visiting the Maasai women project in Kenja. In this project, run by catholic nuns, they make traditional jewelry to be able to send their children to school. As they said, they hope that their children will then be able to give the Maasai a stronger presence in municipalities, politics, and that this will decrease their oppression. But while these children go to school, they will live less tightened to their traditional culture, and if they become successful, they will most likely be westernized.

There is not much enemies of cotton in Uganda, so the need for pesticides is not all that high. Often farmers do not have the money to invest in chemicals either. So the step to become organic is not all to large. What makes a difference, is that the organic farmers are trained in methods to prevent their crops in a natural way. A rather genius but logical invention is to plant red peppers around the cotton. Quite some animals don’t really like peppers so they will stay away. And by using this method, they also produce peppers. Another part of growing organic is using crop rotation. The different crops use the ground different, which keeps the soil fertile, so one does not need artificial fertilizers to pimp up the ground. The crop rotation also results in a more efficient use of the landfill and a higher production. In this way it is also more economic. And off course also the non-organic farmers are very interested to see what their neighbors are doing…

In the end, the social effect of this organic cotton project might be much bigger than the ecological impact. The farmers get a guaranteed price and buy for their cotton, the get training and a organic-bonus of twenty percent. This can mean the difference for sending their children to school or having a proper housing. As they are organized in a cooperative, they are relatively self-organized. In that sense, it is a logical step that the project is becoming fair trade certified now. But also the ecological impact is important, as it supports and conserves a relatively traditional way of farming, and is a good alternative to technolization, GM production and ‘improvements’ with pesticides, often introduced or forced by large corporations, who also try to get more grip in Africa. In this fall, the Ugandese case is an interesting example because the success of the organic production, the support from the Ugandese government and the result might be that the whole North of Uganda will be organic within a few years.

1 comment:

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