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India farmers pause for a cotton-picking minute to mull sustainability

NURJAHANPALLY, India--When Indian icon Mahatma Gandhi took up the baton for home-grown cotton a century ago, he may not have realized the devastating impact its cultivation would have on the land he so loved.

Cotton is a thirsty plant and parts of India are drought-prone. But the intensive farming process for cotton leaches the soil and requires high pesticide and fertilizer use that pollutes further downstream.

Now in the southeastern district of Warangal, dotted with statues to the independence leader in his trademark cotton dhoti, a project to grow the fiber in a way that causes less harm to the land is taking root.

An initiative of green group WWF, the project in an area covering 103 villages seeks to help struggling farmers reduce input costs, improve yields, and lessen their environmental footprint by cutting the use of chemicals and water.

“It works better,” 63-year-old Karra Adireddy, a cotton farmer for two decades who has been in the project from the start, told AFP at the village of Nurjahanpally in Andhra Pradesh state.

In the fields around him, men and women are performing the backbreaking work of hand-picking thousands of fluffy, white balls in a green expanse also dotted with red and white flowers yet to mature.

They pick with dexterity and care, the women heaping the white balls into folds in their colourful saris.

The India Sustainable Cotton Initiative started in the region in 2006 with just 16 hectares and 37 farmers, and now covers more than 21,000 hectares and nearly 12,000 farmers.

Some estimates say the project has brought a three percent increase in yield and a 25 percent reduction in costs.

Local NGO Mari (Modern Architects for Rural India), which runs the initiative alongside the WWF, said farmers involved in the project used 61 percent and 51 percent less water than normal in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

Last year, they used 93 percent less pesticides and 25 percent less chemical fertilizer than farmers who had not adopted the better management practices.

Project farmers now use drip irrigation and dig watering funnels near the roots of their plants rather than sucking dry boreholes and losing scarce water to evaporation through sprinkling.

Instead of chemical fertilizer, many use plant and garlic extracts as pest repellents.

And the farmers sign a code of conduct, undertaking not to use pregnant women and children as cotton-pickers — a common practice in a labor-intensive industry.

Adireddy said he used to pay 1,200 rupees (US$22) for a 50-kilogram bag of chemical fertilizer, but now uses a fermented mixture of cow dung and urine, palm sugar and ghee, a clarified butter made from the milk of his own cows, to nourish his 6-acre (2.4-hectare) field.

Why has he not always used this cheaper, less damaging method? “We didn't know!” he said.

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