A Common Thread

Kala Cotton’s Connections to Culture and Livelihoods

I crack the cotton boll's protective shell, so tough that the muscles in my fingers cramp as I ply the encasement apart. Its edges jab into my skin, relentless in shielding the warm brown fiber inside. I pull at the fiber; it feels different from the bright, fuzzy cotton I’m used to seeing in the United States. Stronger and more compact, its color subdued like the desert fields of Kutch.

I held a boll of organic Kala Cotton in the semi-arid region of Kutch, Gujarat during my first day conducting research for KHAMIR, an Indian NGO that helps rural artisans in Kutch connect to international and national markets via product innovation and design. I put the cracked boll in a plastic baggy and tucked it into the side pocket of my backpack, where I would often find my fingers reaching to touch the fibers. In the following weeks, I saw the matted fibers of Kala Cotton spin the lives of farmers, artists and consumers into a common thread: an interconnectedness of culture, livelihoods and global exchange that I am part of.

I currently work in Washington, DC. In my office, my “personal” shelf space in the community kitchen is empty; I keep my oats and peanut butter hidden in a desk drawer by my feet. Both items lack organic certification marked by a USDA Certified Organic label...a requisite on items belonging to employees in the in at my office.

In Washington, when I hear the word organic, I think of specialty markets that sell tomatoes for four dollars a pound, stressed-out moms worried that their kids’ insides will rot from high fructose corn syrup, overpriced chemical-free face cream, and nostalgic foodies longing for a juicier-than-average peach. In my world here, organic is a concept pedaled to consumers by marketing firms that prey on neuroses and exaggerated threats.

But in Kutch, Gujarat, organic meant something completely different.

In Adessar, tucked away in the most eastern corner of Kutch, farmers wear white cotton suits. Their pants scrunch at the ankles and balloon at the hips, tying underneath jackets that bunch high on the shoulders. The suits are a thick weave of cotton so white, that from a distance, the outlines of their bodies look like doves weaving through the thirsty rows of just-planted crops.  

The farming community in Adessar is one of few that cultivates the region’s indigenous variety of cotton, Kala Cotton—a hardy breed yielding a coarse, stretchable fiber often used in denim. Kala Cotton is a short-staple cotton with a twist per inch of 22-23mm. Having the deepest roots of all cultivated cotton, it is resilient in the midst of drought, wind, bacteria, pests and high levels of soil salinity.1 Kala Cotton is rain-fed and by default organic—it is farmed organically only because its farmers do not have access to irrigation technology nor can they afford synthetic chemicals.

I was in Adessar to collect information from farmers for KHAMIR’s Kala Cotton Initiative, which was in its early days when I was in Kutch. The goal of the project is to establish a closed supply chain between Kala Cotton farmers, spinners and weavers in order to convert raw organic cotton into handspun, hand woven products. This holistic approach to cotton textile production will marry conservation and environmental sustainability, while providing sustainable income-generating opportunities for marginalized farmers, spinners and weavers.

Rakeshbhai was the first farmer I met in Adessar. Barefoot, he led me through his family’s small farm. Several years ago, Rakeshbhai switched from harvesting Kala Cotton to Bt Cotton, a variety of genetically modified cotton marketed to Indian farmers by multinational corporations and the Indian government. When I spoke with him, he had since abandoned Bt Cotton and switched back to Kala Cotton.

Bt cottonseeds, owned by Monsanto, are injected with Bt soil bacterium, an insecticide that fights bollworm, a pest destructive to cotton crops. Bt cotton is said to improve short-term yield and productivity, but it ultimately backfires with a loss of seed diversity, increased allergies, high-risk monetary investments in synthetic inputs, and antibiotic resistance.

Why did Rakeshbhai switch to Bt Cotton? “Many of my neighbors began to harvest Bt. They said I would have higher yields,” Rakeshbhai described his neighbor’s tractor and irrigation machinery. He believed that switching to Bt Cotton would steer his profession closer to modernity.

As we walked through his farm, Rakeshbhai, barefoot, often paused to run his hands through the earth below us. I watched as dirt crumbled through his fingers and scattered back onto the ground. I asked what made him return to Kala Cotton after several seasons of BT Cotton.

He looked down, “With BT Cotton, I walked on my land and the earth hurt my feet. The soil did not belong, and the bottoms of my feet turned hard. Soon after I switched back to Kala Cotton, I could walk comfortably on my land. The ground is much better now. I understand it.”

He planted his bare feet in the earth for emphasis, “It is true that I am not making as much money as Bt Cotton farmers, but there is nothing more that I need. My land is pure.” 

Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India commits suicide.2 Bt Cotton requires irrigation and fertilizer, and to attain these pricey inputs, farmers often rely on local moneylenders or invest the bulk of their savings. Additional harm is caused as Bt cotton introduces resistance to some antibiotics and pesticides, increases overall cost production, deteriorates soil quality and other natural resources, and contributes to the health hazards of farmers.3 As Kutch’s climate is particularly dry and drought-prone, the risks associated with farming Bt cotton leave farmers especially vulnerable. But despite the uncertainty and high costs of Bt cotton, large corporations continue to persuade farmers to grow Bt cotton with promises of high yields and prosperity, and farmer suicides are quickly rising throughout India despite these promises.

Being organic by default, Kala Cotton does not need irrigation or synthetic inputs such as fertilizer or pesticide; its production is environmentally sound and cost effective, providing sustainable livelihoods for marginal farmers.

After I spoke with Rakeshbhai, I went to nearby Makhel Village, where farmers have no access to irrigation; Kala Cotton is the only breed of cotton that can grow there. When I arrived at Makhel Village, the farmers had gathered on a cement platform in the village center. Each of the men I sat with had been a farmer his whole life; and each one of their fathers had been farming their whole lives; and their fathers’ fathers had farmed their whole lives too.

Here, decades ago, farmers and weavers lived side-by-side. The farmers traded their cotton crops with weavers for long turbans, bed sheets and thick water-resistant canvases used for covering pots and rooftops. These communities worked in synchronicity; the intricate barter systems strengthened their trades and ensured sustainability. Weavers turned cotton threads into cloth, trading it to Rabari cattle herders for buffalo milk; cattle herders’ wives embroidered the cloth for farmers in exchange for lentils and grains.

When I was in Makhel Village, artisans no longer practiced weaving. Since the introduction of cotton mills and the industrial textile industry, the art of hand weaving in Kutch has suffered. Traditional weaving practices and local partnerships have nearly vanished. Currently, the majority of weavers in Kutch are a niche group of high-skilled artisans who weave for national and international fashion markets, sourcing fine threads such as silk and wool from all over the world.

The Kala Cotton Initiative aims to hone the skills of low-skilled weavers – marginalized weavers who have not entered the market of fine-weaves for international buyers. These weavers will be trained in traditional techniques, entering the market expressly to produce handmade organic cotton products.

The Kala Cotton farmers in Makhel Village showed enthusiasm for finding a new market for their crop. They knew that irrigation may soon be available in their village, and admitted that it will be tempting to utilize it for Bt cotton. But the farmers also yearned for the opportunity to continue producing their indigenous crop, Kala Cotton.

For generations, farmers in Makhel Village have implemented systems of crop rotation and intercropping for soil and pest management required by Kala Cotton’s organicness. At first, I heard “crop diversification,” as technical jargon and agricultural science. But as the farmers explained their practice, crop diversification became poetry.

“We divide our fields into three parts—one part is dedicated to fodder for cattle, another part to Bajra (grain) and Dal (lentils) for our families, and the third part to Kala Cotton for textiles and trade,” explained a farmer. I doodled a square divided into three equal parts in my notebook. “Every part of life has a place here,” he said with pride.

Crop diversification: a judicious insurance system that provides sustainability on several fronts; a history of farm practices that enabled generations of growth.

Another farmer fetched a bag of lentils from his home and gave it to me as the group carried on about their enduring agriculture systems. The lentils were dark brown with a rough pattern of raised bumps covering their surfaces. Small miracles. The farmers told stories of the generations before them who had practiced the same crop composition for over hundreds of years in the same fields of Makhel Village. I sifted the lentils like gems, making a sound like quiet rain. My mind wandered as I pictured sari-clad women cleaning and cooking these pious by-products of Kala Cotton into a soupy dal to nourish their husbands after a long day in the field.

Agriculture is the main livelihood for rural communities in India, employing more than 65 percent of the country’s population.4 Traditional and low-input farming conserves natural resources, and as the population continues to grow and the earth’s land and water resources decrease, these farms are crucial.5
Back to the peanut butter coagulating in my desk drawer …

I know that I should buy organic peanut butter over Jiff. I recognize that an organic pear almost always tastes better than a conventional pear, and that organic shea butter is harvested less harmfully than conventional shea butter. But these assumptions aren’t enough. The dozens of labels that certify pesticide and chemical- free products feel so far away, their reach distant.

I buy blouses when they flatter my body, and I throw them away when they wear out. I eat food that is convenient. I forget to consider whether the production of my purchases empowers or degrades, enslaves or frees.

Fair Trade Certified, FLO, Rainforest Alliance, 1% for the planet, Oregon Tilth, QAI, USDA Organic. What does it all mean?

In Kutch, I met farmers dedicated to organic without exposure to marketing schemes designed to fuel the fears of worried mothers and health conscious consumers.  The farmers in Kutch refer to what we call “organic” as Ram Mol. Ram translates as God, Mol as crop. Literally, the crop is from God, requiring no synthetic inputs.

For Kala Cotton farmers, organic equals pure and self-sustaining. Organic is a gift from god. Organic is insurance and growth. Organic is balance. Harmony. Enough.  

1 “Gossypium Herbaceum Cotton in India” http://dacnet.nic.in/cotton/herbaceum.htm 13 May 2011. 19.2
Rysavy, Tracy. “Bitter Seeds: The Human Toll of GMOs,” Green American. April/May 2012: Issue 88. P 17.3
Lukas, Martin. Organic Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods in Gujarat, India, November 2007. P 164
Akermann, Pande and Poonam, Kaspar.Adaption of Small Scale Farmers to Climatic Risks in India. Sustainet India p 165
Altieri, Miguel A. Small Farms as a Planetary Ecological Asset - Five key reasons why we should support the revitalization of small farms in the Global South WASSAN; May 2008. p 7

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