In the cotton-growing district outside Bahawalpur city, in Pakistan‘s southern Punjab region, a group of women gather at the house of a local farmer. It is the end of the cotton-picking season when women bring in the crops.
On entering the room, each woman takes off her shoes and loosens her chador, the large shawl worn across the face in conservative areas such as this. They have come here to learn how to protect themselves from the pesticides sprayed earlier in the season.
"We used to suffer from skin problems, such as rashes, as well as dizziness and headaches," says Zohra Bibi, 35, who is married to a subsistence farmer. "We would use the same dirty hands for cooking after we had come in from the fields and sometimes we would even use the empty pesticide bottles in our kitchens to store wheat. Now we know better."
"Whatever we have learned, we have taught our men," she continues. "We’ve told them to wear plastic bags on their hands [gloves are too expensive] and to wear closed shoes and caps when they go to spray the fields."
The training sessions have been organised as part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global programme made up of producers, international retailers and not-for-profit groups. The initiative counts Ikea and H&M among its commercial partners and training activities are organised by the environment group WWF, Oxfam and local civil society organisations.
Nosheen, a young schoolteacher, whose father’s house is being used for the meeting, says: "There has been a big difference in the area since the training began. The women have also become much more aware now. They change their clothes and wash after coming in from the fields. They realise that the pesticide is poisonous."
In almost every village in the cotton-growing belt, pesticide and fertiliser salesman arrive each cotton season selling sprays and bags of varying quality. Prices for pesticides range from $3.50 to $35 a litre and farmers often go deeply into debt to buy these chemicals.
In the past five years, WWF- Pakistan and its local partner, the Kissan Welfare Association (KWA), have conducted hundreds of training sessions, known as farmer field schools, for small farmers in the area. Once a week, farmers meet for around three hours to study a selected field. Around 25 farmers participate, usually with two facilitators. The farmers are split into groups of five and they are asked to prepare a presentation on their findings with charts and drawings – used because many farmers are illiterate – to show what they have learned.
"Before [these meetings], we didn’t know which fertilisers to use or how much pesticide we should be spraying. We used to waste our water and our money," says Mohammed Nasir Sarwar, a farmer and now one of KWA’s master trainers.
The farmers now have their soil tested in a laboratory – a procedure costing just four cents. The test tells them what their soil is lacking so they know which fertiliser to add, and how much. The farmers have also learned to judge when their crops should be sprayed with pesticide. "We used to spray as many as 12 times each season," says Sarwar. "Now, we are down to three or four sprays. We can now identify the different pests and know when to spray." (Overuse of fertilisers can destroy the quality of the soil by increasing its acidity levels.)
Since the field schools were launched six years ago, the farmers have reduced water and pesticide use by 75%. Partly as a result of spending less money on fertiliser and pesticide, and partly due to better growing practices, the farmers have also increased their overall net revenue by 70%.
What started as a small NGO project run by WWF-Pakistan has become a successful business model. By last December almost 50,000 metric tonnes of cotton had been grown and processed in accordance with BCI standards. This is a drop in the ocean compared to overall production in Pakistan – and the rest of the world – but it is a start. Now the BCI intends to expand the project beyond Pakistan and India to China and central Asia.
Asfar Hasan of Matrix Sourcing, a Lahore-based company that supplies cotton to Nike, backs the move. "Consumers can relate to this initiative," he says. "Nike, as one of the largest buyers of cotton, was originally pushing for organic cotton, which is more difficult to grow. The BCI concept is more practical and useful. We are planning to buy this Better Cotton. We realise we can make a big difference in the farmingcommunities."
Only 5% of Ikea’s products currently use sustainable cotton. It has pledged to increase this to 100% but that day is still a long way off. However, BCI cotton production is expanding. From a pilot project of 25,000 hectares, the initiative has been adopted by 40,000 farmers in Pakistan on a total of 400,000 hectares.
Over the next two years the BCI aims to have 15% of global cotton produced by BCI members. Hammad Naqi Khan, from WWF, says that if other brands in Europe and the US follow this initiative they will create a demand for sustainably grown cotton in Pakistan and become a lever for change.