Why India?

When I tell people that I am going to live in India for a year responses range from “Wow! How exciting” to “Dirty, poor, over-populated India? Why?” Because…

As I mentioned in my previous post “The Backstory…” I studied abroad on a program called “Rethinking Globalization: Nature, Culture, Justice” (now called “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture, and Justice”). One of the things I most appreciated about my experience abroad was how I was encouraged to examine how I was a part of processes that seemed so far removed from my day-to-day life in the United States. As a western consumer, I am privileged to have grown up with countless luxuries. I was conditioned to value these products based on the dollar amount on their price tag. I had never considered where the ingredients in my toothpaste came from or how they had ended up mixed together and bottled up in my little tube…until I was in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania.

Carrageenan is a gelling and thickening agent used in everything from toothpaste to ice cream. In Tanzania I learned that carrageenan is extracted from seaweed. I met several women who spent most of their days bent over harvesting seaweed. They sold it to multinational corporations, earning a mere 20 cents per pound of dried seaweed.

So why India? Well, I had a similar realization about my consumer habits while I was on a farm in Wardha, located in Maharashtra, India.

Cotton. My t-shirt tag read “100% cotton.” We’ve all heard the Cotton inc. jingle “the fabric of our lives.” And I learned all about it when I studied slavery and the civil war in fifth grade. But in Wardha I sat under a white canopy and looked up at Kishore Tiwari, our guest lecturer for the morning. He wore an angry look on his face and he spoke with sweat pooling between his eyebrows. His voice shook with emotion. He spoke to us about the detrimental effect that U.S. farm subsidies had on Indian cotton farmers who struggled to compete in the global market. He even blamed us, American consumers, for the suicides of thousands of cotton farmers throughout India. “We look at you as ambassadors to the people to convey that mass genocide is going on,” Tiwari pleaded.

I was embarrassed and felt a mix of guilt and defensiveness. This was the first I was hearing of cotton farmer suicides yet I had been wearing cotton my whole life. India is the world’s third largest producer of cotton…I had to have worn cotton from India before. Was it cotton grown by a farmer who later, out of desperation, took his life?

The day after Tiwari’s lecture, my classmates and I went into the fields and had the opportunity to speak with cotton farmers in Wardha. Prior to our field trip we had read several articles examining the effects of Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton plant originally created by Monsanto and introduced in India in the late 1990s. The articles and Tiwari’s lecture led me to believe that the cotton farmers we were going to talk with would express a discontent with Bt cotton and its high production cost. Surprisingly, the first farmer that I spoke with praised Bt cotton, even though he had not seen an increase in productivity or profit, as was promised by Monsanto’s advertising. The contradiction that lies at the kernel of this encounter is the question that has led me to return to India: Why do farmers promote the modernization of agriculture when it does not always serve their interests?

Speaking to cotton farmers in their fields and to my program coordinators over rice and dahl, I began to see the thin wisps of a vast web of exploitation that ran from the fields in India through a host of actors and institutions and clung tenaciously to my clothing. These fine strands were invisible to me. A whole industry was dedicated to keeping me from seeing them. Nearly a year later I took the stories I had heard in the cotton fields in India and tried to reconcile them with mountains of articles and reports on cotton, agriculture, and trade. The web is tangled. This is no accident. This is why it is so important to trace the strands, to pull on the threads and see what is sitting at the center of the web.

With population increasing and the limits of our natural resources becoming more apparent every day, the pressure is rising for farmers to produce more of our most basic needs in an efficient and sustainable way. New technologies like genetically modified seeds have been developed to aid farmers in this task. Farmers all over the world have altered their agricultural practices to incorporate these new technologies.

There is great debate among scholars, politicians, economists, agronomists, and ecologists as to whether or not these technological changes in agriculture have led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. But what do the farmers think? As people who are daily informed by this agricultural discourse in various ways, it is imperative that farmers’ perspectives be included and considered in the debate.

So I am going back to India. After spending 3 months in a language immersion program in Pune, I will begin my research project. This will take me back to Wardha, back to the cotton fields. Over the course of about 6-9 months I will speak with farmers and ask them what they think about Bt cotton and Monsanto. I will find out if they feel like the advances in agriculture have truly led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. And I’ll let you guys know what I find out…

The backstory. Or why I applied for a Fulbright…

Ok. Here I go. I’m almost a month away from my departure to India. I’m using my free time these days to attack the ever-growing list of things to do before I leave. One of the items on my list: start a blog. Well, update the blog that I started over a year ago. It’s sad. Over a year and I’ve only produced 4 posts. Ooops. I’m great at journaling. Blogging…not so much.

But hopefully that will change in the coming year. I need a way to keep my friends and family up to speed with what I’m doing thousands of miles away. I want to keep track of my experiences and the progress of my project. Blogs organize things well and keep track of chronology. Much better than I can. So, I’m taking a deep breath and re-launching this puppy. It’s got a new name and a new purpose. And I’ve got a new dedication to writing on here.

The first thing I want to do is share with you a tweaked version of the personal statement that I submitted as part of my Fulbright application. I figure if the Fulbright committee wanted to know why I want to do this project, you guys might be interested too.

I was sixteen and Belize was the furthest I had ever traveled from my home in rural Illinois. Dreaming of white beaches, jungle waterfalls, and a reason to get a passport, I signed up for my high school’s spring break trip to Belize. A few months later I found myself sitting beneath heavy humid air in Maya Centre, a small Mayan village that lies at the entrance of the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve. I sat facing Ernesto Saqui, listening as he told the story of conservation and development in his village. When the reserve was established in 1984, the families living there had to relocate to Maya Centre. Ernesto spoke of the exponential increase in tourism that the villagers had seen over the last two decades. Everything had changed.

Hours later I lay in bed, Ernesto’s words echoing in my head. What had he meant by “Everything had changed?” I felt compelled to find out what these changes meant to the families living in that tiny town.

Back at school, I was hungry for the classroom where roosters strutted beneath colorful hammocks. I proposed an independent study to return to Belize and interview villagers about development projects in their area. I spent 10 days in Maya Centre, designing a survey and speaking with families about an impending development project that would dramatically change the infrastructure and economy of many villages in the area.

I poured over a hefty Environmental Impact Assessment and Project Proposal. Every evening I spoke with Ernesto about what I had read in the proposal. I struggled to find a way to explain to him what plastic surgery and water parks were. I got lost in a maze of disbelief; here I was, 17, and desperately wishing that I had a bigger role to play in this experience. The conversations that I was a part of felt so meaningful. I hated that all I was going to do with this experience was give a presentation back at my high school.

Although I didn’t see the connections until recently, that journey was the beginning of a longer one. My experience in Belize quietly influenced which classes I chose at Sarah Lawrence College. Basing my decision on my time in Belize, I chose to spend my junior year of college on a comparative study abroad program called “Rethinking Globalization: Nature, Culture, Justice” (now called “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture and Justice”). Over the course of eight months I studied the impacts of development and globalization on agriculture, nature, and indigenous people across India, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Mexico.

During the two months that I spent in India I visited cotton farms and interviewed farmers. Guilt washed over me as I realized that, despite having worn cotton my whole life, I knew very little about how my clothing had been transformed from seed to shirt. I was ashamed that all this time I had been ignorantly contributing to farmers’ struggles with my consumer demand. Much like I had in Belize, I felt the need to work with these farmers in a more significant way. This time I was determined to do more than give a presentation at my school.

Back at Sarah Lawrence I continued to study cotton and development in India. I still want to do more and being picky about the cotton that I wear isn’t enough. I want to engage in a broader discussion with a wider audience. I want to go back to India and collaborate with cotton farmers. I want to collect their stories and share them with consumers in the United States and around the world.

Over the last few months I’ve realized that what I really want to do in life is travel, talk to people, and write about what I learn. I think the career title for this is “journalist.” Maybe. We’ll see.

For now I can at least cross off “re-vamp blog” from my “to-do before India” list.