Dirty White Gold – Leah Borromeo on her Indian Cotton Fields Documentary

London documentary maker and journalist, Leah Borromeo, has been working on a documentary exposing links between the fashion industry and 300,000 Indian farmer suicides over the last 17 years.

Focussing not only on the farmers, but on the families they leave behind, and on resistance campaigns here in the UK, yet again we hear transparency in the fashion industry is what is required to stop this being yet another hidden side effect of cheap clothing for western consumers.

We thought you’d like to hear Leah have her say. Plus see the trailer to the documentary, ‘The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold’ and find out how to support the project here.

The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold

by Leah Borromeo

Nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide to get out of debt since 1995. A good number of them are cotton farmers – stuck in a cycle of debt involving banks and middlemen, multinational corporations with seed patents, agricultural chemicals, failing rains due to climate change and a lack of practical education at the local level. These farmers are the people who pick the crops that clothe us. And sometimes they drink the pesticides they use to protect their crops to kill themselves

I’m making a film that seeks to unpick why farmers are pushed to extremes and will look at the people working to stop it. It will find fashion’s real victims and follow the scientists, economists, activists, designers and individuals working to not only stop suicides but ensure that ethics and sustainability become the norm in the fashion industry.

A farmer’s agony doesn’t end with suicide. The money owed still remains. Although a government compensation scheme is in place, there are many hurdles to access it. The farmer must have owned a certain amount of land and he’d need to kill himself in a certain way. And it’s only worth around a thousand pounds. Of that thousand, only a quarter gets given to the widow. The rest is put in a bank and the widow and her family only have access to the interest gained on it. To put things in perspective, it’s the same amount of money as the cheapest car in India – the Tata Nano.

I never set out to make this film. A friend convinced me to take a camera with me on a self-funded junket with a clothing brand to check out their supply chain off the back of an article I wrote in 2009 on pesticides used in fashion. Researching the trip, I came across farmer suicides. Hundreds of thousands of them. And the fact that very few people in the West knew about them. I pitched the idea to make a film to not only investigate these suicides, but to find a way to stop them, to Dartmouth Films. Known for making The End of the Line, The War You Don’t See and other campaigning documentaries, I knew I’d found the right home for it.

We raised enough money to go out on a research trip where we found our characters and cut a trailer to raise more money to finish production. We found support from private foundations and individuals who were all appalled at the complicity in these deaths. We also found an energy in people actively working to change the fabric of corruption and debt that surrounds each farmer.

Cotton seeds in India are controlled by one company. Monsanto. 95% of the industry actually. Monsanto own the technology behind Bt [bacillus thuringiensis] cotton which comes from a genetically modified sterile seed resistant to the boll worm. They license this technology to a host of seed companies in India. The seed’s sterility means farmers can’t reuse them. From a box of seeds that costs 950 rupees, 180 rupees goes to Monsanto. Farmers are also instructed to buy chemical insecticides and pesticides to keep other creepy crawlies away. One of our characters, a farmer called Hanuman, had to borrow 80,000 rupees to farm this year. He’s spent 70,000 rupees on seeds and chemicals. He has to find the money to school his kids and feed his family with the remaining 10,000. When I left him, he was talking about borrowing more money to buy more chemicals which will probably give him long term health problems. When he goes to sell his cotton, he fears he won’t get a good price nor will he get a good yield as the rains came late. To top up his income, Hanuman works on other people’s farms for 100 rupees a day.

There are proponents of organic farming. But the farmer is faced with a lower yield and the awkward transition period of three years before he can get organic certification. In this period he has to farm organically but can’t command higher organic prices. Some markets only offer one price for whatever cotton you produce – so the incentive lies with using chemicals. Bt. farmers don’t have money and they feel organic farming is too much of a gamble. It’s not true, but it’s a widespread belief.

I’m determined to make sure this isn’t another guilt-driven documentary that preys on people’s sympathy. I’m also willing to explore science and the idea of open-sourcing technology to take the power away from corporations and anyone who makes a killing out of suicides.

Adam Curtis has a phrase – “oh dearism”. It’s when people look at a horrible thing and say “ooh that’s horrible” and then do nothing about it. I want people to watch this film and say, “I know what I can do about it”. We’ll have direct action – not just stunts. We’ll work on changing governmental legislation around the fashion supply chain and call for transparency through clear labelling. The hypothesis is that if people are accountable to other people along the chain, they’re less likely to be able to deceive them.

The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold requires just a little more crowd-funding to complete the documentary. We think it would be great to see this fascinating piece of work through to completion. Crowd-funding finishes this Friday 16th November, so if you’re interesting in finding out more or supporting Leah and her team, go to http://thecottonfilm.com.


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