Better cotton, better lives

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Umul Baneen is a hard-working woman from Maqboolabad, a rural town in the heart of Punjab in Pakistan’s cotton-growing region. I had the pleasure to meet her and her husband, and hear their story as part of my work as coordinator for WWF’s Sustainable Cotton Initiative. This work aims to improve the lives and livelihoods cotton farmers and their families while reducing the crop’s environmental footprint. I have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand how the pursuit of sustainable cotton farming is benefiting communities across the country.

Umul Baneen was an early participant in our cotton initiative back in 2005. She learned about sowing, planting and picking cotton in a way that protects the health and well-being of farming families. At that time, in the hottest months of the year, she saw children would play in the cotton fields or pick cotton alongside their mothers rather than going to school. Conditions and practices were far from ideal. Expectant mothers could also be found working in the fields, and women would use empty pesticide spray bottles in their homes to keep water or spices.

Cotton is a “thirsty” crop, which when grown conventionally, uses pesticides, fertilizers and lots of water. Conventional cotton production has long been associated with depletion and pollution of water sources, long-term damage to soil and biodiversity, and child labour. Cases of pesticide poisoning are prolific, and the health dangers for cotton farmers and their families and communities are significant.

Yet cotton farming is a vital mainstay of many developing country economies and a livelihood for millions of farmers worldwide; an estimated 40 million small cotton farmers produce around 75 per cent of the world’s cotton. So it is imperative to improve the way cotton is grown. These are among the reasons WWF became a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative.

Umul Baneen is now a trainer with the Sustainable Development Organization (SDO), an implementing partner of WWF-Pakistan’s Sustainable Cotton Initiative. It’s a calling she came to over almost a decade-long journey.

Umul Baneen_1-052016Umul Baneen leads a training session. ©WWF

After her training, Umul Baneen was motivated to use what she had learned to help others. She knew she had the power to use her own knowledge and experience to make a difference. When Umul Baneen married in 2010, she was resolute in her drive to continue her work even though it is not the norm for women in villages for to go out to work.

“Being a rural woman, I hesitated about talking to men and traveling alone, but after my own training and involvement in the training of other women I gained confidence,” she told me. “Initially, everybody objected to my traveling alone, but now things have changed and everybody in the village has respect for me.” Umul Baneen has become the only woman field facilitator in her organization and the first woman to work outside her village.

Today, Umul Baneen aspires to do even more and has an interest in learning how to use a computer, which she has tried during time spent in SDO’s office. She credits her husband Zubair, who has been supportive of her work. He also works for the SDO, persuading cotton farmers to adopt better management practices.

“This work is like worship for us, as this is for the betterment of the people who grow cotton,” Zubair told me.

While Umul Baneen takes the lead on training women, her husband works with farmers to spread awareness about soil health and improved farming techniques such as soil testing, laser levelling to reduce water use, healthy seed varieties and using registered pesticides.

“Before, farmers used to spray their fields just because a fellow farmer had also sprayed his crop,” Zubair said. “Now, farmers use pesticides in limited amounts, and only when necessary, rather than in imitation of others. I explain to the famers that there is demand in the international market for cotton grown more sustainably.” Reducing use of water and chemicals has the added benefit of increasing profits for the farmers.

Umul Baneen uses role play, diagrams and drawings to teach women what precautions they need to take when picking cotton, and storing and handling pesticides. Her lesson plan includes health and safety, principles of decent work, the difference between medicines and pesticides and their storage, involvement of children in cotton picking, how to reduce exposure to pesticide residues, and harvesting and storage of seed cotton to minimize trash, contamination and damage.

Shehar Bano, a female cotton picker, carries a bundle of raw cotton with her fellow worker Manzoora Khatoon on a farm - part of the Better Cotton project - in Salehpat, Sukkur, Pakistan. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) was founded by WWF and a number of like-minded retailers to improve the way cotton is grown and processed - and create a more sustainable future for cotton. BCI strives to mainstream 'Better Cotton' that is more energy-efficient, uses resources such as water more wisely, reduces the use of pesticides and is healthier for people and the environment.Shehar Bano carries a bundle of raw cotton with her fellow worker Manzoora Khatoon on a farm – part of the Better Cotton project – in Salehpat, Sukkur, Pakistan. © Asim Hafeez / WWF-UK

I had the opportunity to watch one of Umul Baneen’s training sessions and meet some of the women who have received Umul Baneen’s lessons over the years. They all acknowledge following Umul Baneen’s advice and often have competitions to see who picks the most cotton or the fastest. The women look up to her and are friendly with her, and some even call her baji or older sister.

“One challenge is that sometimes it is hard to ask women to gather in one place so I can deliver the training,” said Umul Baneen. “So I go house to house and ask women where they would feel most comfortable and be willing to get together. I keep track of who attends training sessions and who does not. I visit those who don’t come to talk with them personally.”

At the start of her work as the field facilitator, Umul Baneen recalls that women would not take her seriously and would joke about what she had to say. It was common practice for women to pick cotton with bare hands and feet. But resulting skin complaints meant that gradually the women became more interested in what Umul Baneen had to say, and started listening to her.

“When someone asks advice on what time of the day they should go to pick cotton or what they should do if their skin is itching, it makes me feel very happy,” she said.

Umul Baneen feels the cotton growing community has become more aware, and people have started taking more precautions to minimize pesticide exposure, with no one using empty pesticide bottles in their homes anymore. And farming communities have now started to realize the importance of sending children to school.

Umul Baneen reminisces about her childhood days, admitting that she also snuck out of school to pick cotton from the field. Her sole motivation was to sell the cotton to buy some sweet treats! Today as the field facilitator she has sometimes taken children from the fields and dropped them at school. In 2011, she worked with teachers from her own school to visit house to house and draw up a list of students who were at home, and explained to their parents that government schools offer subsidized education so they should send their children to school.

I am in awe of heroes like Umul Baneen and Zubair, whose efforts have brought significant health, economic and environmental benefits to cotton farmers and have helped children working in the cotton fields return to their studies.

Umul Baneen and Zubair © WWF Umul Baneen and Zubair © WWF

Both Umul and Zubair remain available to communities for questions or consultations throughout the year and take every opportunity to refresh anything that someone may have forgotten. “When we go into a new area, we introduce ourselves and our work. People ask us how what we say will benefit them. We tell them that we are not here to give or take anything from them – we just ask them to listen to us and they can judge whether what we say will benefit them or not.”

Hajra Atiq, Cotton Coordinator, WWF-Pakistan

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