Stories from the Field
The Better Cotton Initiative exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable, mainstream commodity. In the 2015 – 16 harvest, we reached nearly 1.6 million farmers in 23 countries, including China, India, and Pakistan, some of the world’s biggest cotton producing nations. Meanwhile, demand for Better Cotton continues to rise, as more brands and retailers join us and opt to make Better Cotton an integral part of their sustainable cotton strategies. A sizeable 12% of global cotton production is already licensed as Better Cotton, and we are targeting 30% by 2020. That’s 8.2 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton.
So what does it take to grow Better Cotton, day by day? This year, we highlight some of the great work accomplished by our Implementing Partners (IPs) on the ground, and step into the lives and fields of cotton farmers in four production countries.
At the heart of our efforts to transform cotton production sits the Better Cotton Standard System (BCSS). It is a proven approach, guiding farmers on a journey of training, monitoring and continuous improvement against six major environmental and social production principles. Additionally, our Growth and Innovation Fund is helping to shine a light on the best technologies and practices to address pressing sustainability challenges. By following the BCSS Production Principles and adopting new farming practices, farmers across the world are reducing their costs and experiencing measurable improvements in yields and profits.
So what does it take to grow Better Cotton, day by day? This year, we highlight some of the great work accomplished by our Implementing Partners (IPs) on the ground, and step into the lives and fields of cotton farmers in four production countries. We’ll explore how our IP in Turkey is empowering Producer Units to deliver vital decent work training to farmers and workers. We’ll accompany an agricultural advisor in the cotton fields of Tajikistan, and we’ll hear from a woman in rural Pakistan who rose above cultural barriers to become a successful and respected farmer. Elsewhere, we’ll uncover how Australian farmers are gearing up to share their world-class knowledge of efficient, environmentally sustainable growing practices with farmers in Pakistan.
We hope you enjoy getting close to the action!
All workers have the right to decent work – work that offers fair pay, security and equal opportunities for learning and progression, in an environment where people feel safe, respected, and able to express their concerns or negotiate better conditions. Helping BCI Farmers to promote decent work is vital to improving farmers’ and workers’ wellbeing and livelihoods. That’s why it is one of the six BCSS Production Principles, and an important part of the training we provide through our IPs.
Following on from the training, we noticed a significant improvement in the awareness of decent work issues among both farmers and workers. We’ll encourage Production Unit managers to build on this success by continuing to share their decent work knowledge with farmers and workers every year.
Cotton farmers across the world face multiple decent work challenges, ranging from protecting workers from pesticide exposure, discrimination against women and providing adequate transport, food and accommodation for seasonal workers, to identifying and preventing child labour.
To promote decent work in Turkey, BCI’s IP IPUD (Good Cotton Practices Association) conducts field visits and holds training events to raise BCI Farmers’ awareness of topical issues. In 2016, it built on these efforts by developing a comprehensive decent work training programme, in partnership with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), covering a broad range of decent work topics. To reach as many people as possible, IPUD set out to empower producer unit (PU) managers and field facilitators to train and share knowledge with fellow farmers and workers.
Firstly, IPUD provided three days of ‘train the trainer’ training to 64 PU managers and field facilitators in the Aydın and Şanlıurfa regions. Through learning materials developed in partnership with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), farmers learnt about decent work issues related to agriculture and cotton, regional differences and BCSS criteria, as well as international, national and local regulations. Participants were also able to exchange knowledge, and learn best practice techniques for training farmers and workers. They also learnt about monitoring compliance with decent work standards in the field, and partnering with NGOs to improve labour conditions.
With the support of IPUD and the FLA, each PU organised field-level training for its farmers and workers throughout the season, adapting it to suit their needs. For example, seasonal workers, who help with irrigating crops, learnt about securing work permits and fair pay, while permanent workers, who typically help with weeding and harvesting, focused on contractual issues. Some PUs also invited local doctors to provide additional health and safety sessions.
Overall, 998 people participated in the training, and the results are already visible. Some PU managers are making improvements to contractual conditions, and providing contracts to migrant workers. Elsewhere, they improved the living and transport conditions for seasonal workers.
“Following on from the training, we noticed a significant improvement in the awareness of decent work issues among both farmers and workers,” says Ömer Oktay, IPUD’s field training and capacity building specialist. “We’ll encourage Production Unit managers to build on this success by continuing to share their decent work knowledge with farmers and workers every year.”
Raising awareness of child labour and gender equality
Among the decent work issues we see in some cotton production countries, there are two challenges in particular that we are working hard to address: gender inequality and child labour.
BCI currently works with 40,560 women farmers worldwide.
Despite the UN-led global push for education for all, child labour remains a challenge in developing (and sometimes in developed) countries, particularly when families are struggling to make ends meet
Despite the UN-led global push for education for all, child labour remains a challenge in developing (and sometimes in developed) countries, particularly when families are struggling to make ends meet. BCI takes this complex issue very seriously and works closely with independent labour experts to optimise our approach. We support farmers by helping them to understand and respect national legal requirements, as well as the fundamental, interrelated ILO conventions on respecting minimum ages for young workers (C138) and avoiding the ‘worst forms of child labour’ (C182). In the context of cotton farming, this could mean activities deemed hazardous for children, such as pesticide application.
We highlight the extent to which children can provide help on family farms, share advice on promoting young people’s health and wellbeing, and encourage parents to maximise educational opportunities, where they are available. Increasingly, we are working with our IPs to measure farmers’ awareness of child labour issues.
Our focus on decent work issues extend to gender inequality, too. Supporting women in the cotton supply chain has a multiplier effect, boosting their confidence, and strengthening their standing in their family and community. With women typically investing 90% of their income in their families , it also helps families save towards children’s healthcare and education. BCI currently works with 40,560 women farmers worldwide.
However, all too often, women cotton workers are likely to undertake the least skilled work (such as seasonal or part-time work), and enjoy less job security than men. Women workers globally are particularly vulnerable to low wages, receiving (on average) 25%-30% less pay than men for the same work.
In Pakistan, cultural forces combine to perpetuate these issues. For example, women have less voice in their family and community, with men leading decision-making, particularly in rural areas. Women have few rights to livestock, land or property, and are often restricted to indoor activities. In the country’s cotton sector, women perform much of the manual labour, yet few have the opportunity to be recognised as farmers or make farm management decisions. In making the leap, they face challenges from illiteracy to accessing government subsidies, training and resources such as water, fertiliser, as well as markets for their crops.
BCI’s IPs in Pakistan, including the Rural Education Economic and Education Development Society (REEDS), seek to create an environment that encourages both women and men to join its Learning Groups. In 2016, REEDS worked with 30 women farmers and 5,072 women workers. One of the women who was engaged by REEDS, Shama Bibi, had lost her husband, a cotton farmer, and was keen to become a farmer in her own right.
Despite initial resistance from her family, Shama became part of REEDS’ Learning Group in Rahim Yar Khan in 2015, steadily building her confidence and farming knowledge, covering every aspect of cotton growing, from seed to harvest. In particular, she learnt about best practice in observing crop health and spraying chemicals safely, replacing conventional pesticides with natural substances, and improving soil fertility, as well as optimising her irrigation and water harvesting techniques, and promoting decent work.
Now, a year on, Shama is running her farm profitably and is able to provide for her eight dependents. In particular, she has saved costs by using fewer pesticides, reduced post-harvest losses and maximised the crop she can take to market. She keeps track of costs, yield and profit in her Farmer Field Book. Meanwhile, improving her understanding of soil health is increasing her chances of cultivating healthy crops in the future.
“I have learned a lot through my discussions with Learning Group members,” says Shama. “My in-laws are impressed and often come to me for advice on cotton production issues. Next year, I am expecting to achieve a higher yield and better profitability.”
Importantly, understanding decent work principles prompted her to send her daughter to school rather than allowing her to help on the farm. Shama’s action is part of a wider trend, according to REEDS executive director, Shahid Saleem.
“The opportunity to share and build knowledge through the Better Cotton project inspires women to invest in their own and their daughters’ education, become involved in women’s entrepreneurship groups and scale up their business activities,” he says. “As they gain confidence and leadership skills, women also gain more respect in the community, and become more involved in household and farm decision-making. One of our Learning Group members went on to become a field facilitator herself and is now helping other women improve their cotton farming knowledge.”
In 2017, REEDS plans to reach more than 7,300 women workers and 50 female farmers in the rural districts of Rahim Yar Khan and Vehari.
A day in the life of an agricultural advisor
“Our IPs’ field facilitators are the face of BCI in the field,” explains Romain Deveze, BCI’s Global Programme Manager. “Their contribution is critical in reaching farmers with much-needed advice and expertise, and demonstrating that the BCSS Production Principles really do deliver results. Increasingly, we are strengthening our relationship with facilitators and empowering them to do more to help farmers overcome production challenges, including by connecting them with NGOs, research groups and independent farming and labour experts.”
Our IPs’ field facilitators are the face of BCI in the field.
In Tajikistan, farmers face challenges including water scarcity and extreme weather. In 2015-16, flood waters washed away newly planted seeds in the northern Sughd region, and unseasonably high summer temperatures damaged cotton crops across the country. Farmers also struggle to ensure contracts, and safe working conditions for seasonal cotton pickers.
Chamangul Abdusalomova has been an agricultural advisor with Sarob, our IP in Tajikistan, since 2013, supporting field facilitators in delivering training and advice to farmers. An agronomist by training, she holds field days to showcase new technologies and runs practical demonstrations to help farmers implement each BCSS production principle. She also provides important advice on decent work. Her day begins early, often at dawn in the harvest season.
“Agriculture does not have working hours,” she says. “In September, harvest season, I go to the field at 6am and check how farmers are getting on with harvesting, and how well they’re following the BCSS criteria. For example, it’s important that they don’t use plastic bags to store cotton, as this encourages moisture. After the harvest, I help them to minimise losses by protecting the cotton in transport and storing it in a dry spot. I also monitor whether farmers are providing seasonal cotton pickers with drinking water, and whether there are children or pregnant women in the field.”
Chamangul visits two to three farmers a day, advising farmers and workers on how best to address the issues they’re experiencing and implement best practices. Her ‘toolkit’ of ideas and demonstrations varies during the season. For example, at the beginning of the cotton season, she helps farmers gauge the best moment to sow seeds by measuring soil temperature and giving advice on optimum weather for sowing. Both farmers and seasonal cotton pickers are keen to learn from her, she explains.
When workers have a moment to relax, they often ask me questions about cotton growing – everything from the benefits of higher quality seeds or reducing soil acidity to identifying the insects they see in the fields
“When workers have a moment to relax, they often ask me questions about cotton growing – everything from the benefits of higher quality seeds or reducing soil acidity to identifying the insects they see in the fields,” she says. “Often, I run question and answer sessions to address common challenges, and I share all the information with my team, so that other Learning Groups can benefit too.”
Asked whether she has observed positive changes on the ground, Chamangul says she has seen evidence of farmers adopting both more progressive environmental and social practices, with positive results. For example, beneficial insects, and using non-chemical alternatives to synthetic pesticides, helped BCI Farmers (compared to non-BCI Farmers) reduce their use of synthetic pesticides by 23% in 2015-16.
“In the rural villages where I work, farmers are increasingly learning to dispose of pesticide bottles responsibly, rather than throwing them in the river,” she says. “This is helping to preserve the quality of local water supplies. Similarly, farmers are no longer grazing animals near areas due for pesticide spraying.
Beneficial insects, and using non-chemical alternatives to synthetic pesticides, helped BCI Farmers reduce their use of synthetic pesticides by 23% in 2015-16.
I’m also seeing farmers introduce ‘beneficial insects’ and cultivate wild flowers and plants that ‘trap’ pest insects , which is helping to reduce their reliance on chemicals. By adopting simple, cost effective pest management techniques, they’re also saving money and putting less strain on the environment.”
From a social perspective, Chamangul explains that farmers are increasingly stepping up to their responsibility to provide clean drinking water for workers, particularly during the harvest season. Additionally, children are tending to help their parents only outside of school time, with simple activities such as looking after the wild flowers bordering the field.
“I hope that more farmers will join BCI in Tajikistan because they will really see the benefits, particularly as demand for Better Cotton grows,” she concludes.
Sharing progressive environmental practices globally
Climate change poses a real and growing threat for the world’s cotton farmers, many of whom cultivate their crops in countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate risks. Irregular rainfall, in particular, creates a steep challenge, with farmers under pressure to use less water to grow a traditionally water-intensive crop. Beyond water, cotton production often puts unnecessary stress on the environment through pesticide use, soil depletion and disruption to local habitats. BCI is moving to encourage farmers adapt to the effects of climate change, build resilience and reduce their own carbon footprint. Our enhanced BCSS will be central to helping farmers navigate extreme and evolving weather patterns.
We see Pakistan’s cotton farmers not as competitors, but as part of the global cotton industry to which we all belong.
Through the BCSS production principles, we help farmers to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices, focusing on protecting crops with fewer pesticides, optimising water use, managing soil health and encouraging biodiversity to flourish. Our IPs draw on these principles to help farmers respond to the sustainability challenges they see on the ground.
In Australia, water scarcity is the biggest challenge for cotton farmers, as cotton is only produced when water is available. Over the last few decades, Australian farmers have made significant progress irrigating their crops with limited water supplies, thanks to advances and uptake in irrigation technology, cutting edge scientific research, and continuous improvement programmes such as myBMP, run by our Australian partner, Cotton Australia. The Australian cotton industry has achieved a 40% increase in water productivity over the last decade.
myBMP is the underlying platform accelerating farmers’ uptake of more sustainable practices in Australia. The programme is aligned to the BCSS Production Principles, allowing myBMP-certified farmers to sell their cotton globally as Better Cotton. Through the platform, farmers can compare practices, access expert advice on driving improvements, and measure progress. According to Rick Kowitz, Cotton Australia’s myBMP Manager, the opportunity to access Better Cotton markets has provided an additional incentive for cotton farmers to get involved, increasing grower participation in myBMP by 50% since 2014. Overall, Australian cotton farmers traded 50,035 metric tonnes of Better Cotton lint in 2016, up from 16,787 metric tonnes in 2015, and the volumes are only forecast to grow.
“The wider community benefits too, as more farmers join the movement,” he explains. “Farmers and regional communities are making the most of more efficient and profitable farming systems, a healthier natural environment, and safer, more rewarding work opportunities,” he says.
Now, 20 years on from the launch of myBMP, Cotton Australia is gearing up to share the world-class knowledge and skills gained by Australian cotton farmers with Better Cotton projects in other countries, particularly those operating at the frontline of climate change. In 2017, the Cotton Australia team will support BCI’s IPs in Pakistan in delivering training on progressive environmental practices to the country’s farmers. The move has been made possible through a $500,000 grant from the Australian Government’s Department of Foregin Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which will be matched by the BCI Growth and Innovation Fund. Together, Cotton Australia, DFAT and BCI aim to reach 50,000 new farmers in 2017, enabling a total of 200,000 farmers in Pakistan to grow and sell Better Cotton.
“We see Pakistan’s cotton farmers not as competitors, but as part of the global cotton industry to which we all belong,” says Cotton Australia’s CEO, Adam Kay. “It’s vital that we work together to address cotton’s sustainability challenges. We can help by sharing our knowledge and expertise with our fellow farmers through BCI.”
Focusing on Pakistani farmers’ most pressing challenges, BCI and Cotton Australia will develop practical training tools and share the latest management practices to help Pakistan’s cotton farmers adopt progressive farming techniques and improve their yields. Cotton Australia will tailor its recommendations to Pakistan’s farming system, drawing on Australian farmers’ in-depth experience to help participants build their knowledge and understanding of best practice techniques.
We see cross-country collaboration as an important tool to help farmers address global climate change risks
Cotton Australia is exploring the best way to reach farmers with vital information, such as research and development findings, and practical tips and advice on more sustainable production methods. The team is also considering how to facilitate knowledge exchanges between farmers and researchers. Importantly, both Cotton Australia and BCI will gain valuable knowledge about how to share knowledge effectively with cotton farmers in developing countries.
“We see cross-country collaboration as an important tool to help farmers address global climate change risks,” says Corin Wood-Jones, BCI’s Senior Programme Manager – Global Supply. “It’s a vital part of our broader intervention strategy to strengthen the global industry and mainstream Better Cotton.”
These stories are just a snapshot of the many stories we see every day on the ground in the diverse regions and countries where Better Cotton is produced. We will continue to support cotton farmers around the world in adopting the Better Cotton Standard System to address pressing sustainability challenges, raise their yields and boost profits. Their cumulative efforts present a huge opportunity to transform global cotton production – at scale – protecting the sector’s 250 million workers and preserving natural resources for future generations.
We will continue to support cotton farmers around the world…