My recent trip to India proved just how rewarding organic cotton farm ‘projects’ can be. I saw and learnt many things during this short trip but one of the biggest impressions must have been the smiles on the faces of the school children I met. Lives were being transformed in remote rural villages, where formal education has been introduced for the first time. It’s also evident that investment in a child’s education goes way beyond the classroom, having a ripple effect throughout the entire community.
Socio-economic development policies, including fair trade, are integral to the foundation and principles of many organic cotton programs; not always easy given the tough economic climate the textile industry operates within, and the sometimes lack of understanding or insight into the amount of work that goes into making social development happen on the ground. By seeing firsthand, one can truly appreciate the impact education is having on the lives of village children, and how it can kick-start positive change within a community, and brighten its future.
Over the course of a week my colleagues Prabha Nagarajan, Hanna Denes, and I squeezed in a visit to three of India’s leading organic cotton producer groups: Chetna Organic in Orissa, bioRe, and Vasudha (the organic producer arm of Pratibha Syntex) both in Madhya Pradesh. Each organization is distinct in structure and origins, yet share common ground when it comes to investing deeply in their community of organic farmers, including schooling programs in remote farming locations.
Organic production tends to be organized around communities for a number of reasons including; economies of scale, logistics of trade, certification processes, and farmer training in organic production. This organizational structure creates a nucleus for community investment beyond the field since farming families are already connected through their organic cotton production systems. This connection tends to make it easier to successfully introduce schools into remote areas where education may be available for the very first time. Organic cotton projects often have a social motivation, however fair trade certification (along with the organic) guarantees investment is made at the producer level. Further, it ensures community ownership of any social improvement initiatives. Either way, the potential for organic and fairtrade programs to significantly change lives is enhanced through formalized social objectives and made possible through business investment.
The support and financial contribution from brands and retailers is often essential to community investment. The European retailers Coop Swiss, C&A, and Jackpot work closely with the producer groups we visited. As I learnt, the rewards are two way; and it’s hard to express how fulfilling it is for companies and their employees to be able to connect with farmers and know that together they are making such a difference to people’s lives. As an ‘outsider’, the privilege of being welcomed into another’s home can really only be appreciated through direct experience.
We were lucky enough to look in on a couple of these remote schools, funded and supported by organic (and organic fairtrade) cotton initiatives. It was explained to me – and visibly evident – that a school not only brings education to people’s lives, but it also brings local jobs, health, nutrition, hygiene, appropriate technology, improved household financial management, and dreams of a better future. Where parents signatures consist of a thumbprint, their children can proudly scribe their full name.
The next steps for groups such as bioRe, Chetna, and Pratibha is to make sure some of this progress is invested back into the communities it evolves from. It must be all too tempting for the children to want to leave home and ‘seek ones fortune’, it happens in society all the time. And while this may be inevitable, the program team leaders I spoke to are finding ways to inspire the next generation to stay home. Tertiary education is already in the pipeline, some with a focus on agriculture and rural development. Chetna has introduced kitchen garden and food programs into the local schools and children are not only growing their own organic vegetables but harvesting enough to boost the school dinner program. BioRe, whose education investment program, with the help of Remei and Swiss Coop, has grown to over twenty remote village schools, has ambitions for agriculturally focused tertiary institutions. Locals will be able to learn modern agro-ecological farming on their doorstep. Pratibha is expanding its private school, (funded by fairtrade premiums) year on year so each graduating student will have a chance to continue their education. Land has already been secured for an Institute of Technology.
It was clear that the schools we visited were providing a hub of activity, building on the knowledge intensiveness of organic agriculture. Seeing education in action, whether it was in the field or in the classroom over this past week, was tremendously exciting. And since this was the first generation to receive a school education, it was also intriguing to think about what might happen next. Hopefully the children of organic farmers will see a future in knowledge-intensive agriculture and develop an interest in rural community investment themselves. If Chetna, bioRe, and Pratibha have anything to do with it the chances are they will, and we’ll all benefit.