1,500 Indian Farmers Commit Mass Suicide: Why We Are Complicit in These Deaths
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The headline has been hard to ignore. Across the world press, news media have announced that over 1,500 farmers in the Indian state of Chattisgarh committed suicide. The motive has been blamed on farmers being crippled by overwhelming debt in the face of crop failure.
The agricultural state of Chattisgarh was hit by falling water levels.
"The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago," Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine.
"Most of the farmers here are indebted and only God can save the ones who do not have a bore well."
While many may have been shocked by these deaths, farmer suicides in India, and increasingly across the world, are not new.
In the last ten years, the problem has been reaching epidemic proportions. In one region of India alone 1,300 cotton farmers took their own lives in 2006, but the culprit cannot rest solely on a falling water table.
As the Independent article continues:
Bharatendu Prakash, from the Organic Farming Association of India, told the Press Association: "Farmers' suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death."
But there's more to the story than that. Farmer suicides can be attributed to, "something far more modern and sinister: genetically modified crops," the UK's Daily Mail reports.
Shankara, like millions of other Indian farmers, had been promised previously unheard of harvests and income if he switched from farming with traditional seeds to planting GM seeds instead.
Beguiled by the promise of future riches, he borrowed money in order to buy the GM seeds. But when the harvests failed, he was left with spiraling debts -- and no income.
So Shankara became one of an estimated 125,000 farmers to take their own life as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.
And no company has been as notorious in the business as the U.S. agra-giant Monsanto. As Nancy Scola explained in a piece for AlterNet:
Here's the way it works in India. In the central region of Vidarbha, for example, Monsanto salesmen travel from village to village touting the tremendous, game-changing benefits of Bt cotton, Monsanto's genetically modified seed sold in India under the Bollgard® label. The salesmen tell farmers of the amazing yields other Vidarbha growers have enjoyed while using their products, plastering villages with posters detailing "True Stories of Farmers Who Have Sown Bt Cotton." Old-fashioned cotton seeds pale in comparison to Monsanto's patented wonder seeds, say the salesmen, as much as an average old steer is humbled by a fine Jersey cow.
Part of the trick to Bt cotton's remarkable promise, say the salesmen, is that Bollgard® was genetically engineered in the lab to contain bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that the company claims drastically reduces the need for pesticides. When pesticides are needed, Bt cotton plants are Roundup® Ready -- a Monsanto designation meaning that the plants can be drowned in the company's signature herbicide, none the worse for wear. (Roundup® mercilessly kills nonengineered plants.)
Sounds great, right? The catch is that Bollgard® and Roundup® cost real money. And so Vidarbha's farmers, somewhat desperate to grow the anemic profit margin that comes with raising cotton in that dry and dusty region, have rushed to both banks and local moneylenders to secure the cash needed to get on board with Monsanto. Of a $3,000 bank loan a Vidarbha farmer might take out, as much as half might go to purchasing a growing season's worth of Bt seeds.
And the same goes the next season, and the next season after that. In traditional agricultural, farmers can recycle seeds from one harvest to plant the next, or swap seeds with their neighbors at little or no cost. But when it comes to engineered seeds like Bt cotton, Monsanto owns the tiny speck of intellectual property inside each hull, and thus controls the patent. And a farmer wishing to reuse seeds from a Monsanto plant must pay to relicense them from the company each and every growing season.
The cycle of debt continues into a downward spiral. And to be sure, water problems are adding to the crisis. In this most recent instance dam construction nearby was a significant contributor. While changes in water availability may be the jumping point for some farmers in India, it has been the globalization model of agriculture hyped by companies like Monsanto and Cargill that have led farmers to the cliff in the first place.
As renown physicist and anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva (who has also fought against big dam construction) said in an interview with Democracy Now! in 2006:
A few weeks ago, I was in Punjab. 2,800 widows of farmer suicides who have lost their land, are having to bring up children as landless workers on others' land. And yet, the system does not respond to it, because there's only one response: get Monsanto out of the seed sector--they are part of this genocide -- and ensure WTO rules are not bringing down the prices of agricultural produce in the United States, in Canada, in India, and allow trade to be honest. I don't think we need to talk about free trade and fair trade. We need to talk about honest trade. Today's trade system, especially in agriculture, is dishonest, and dishonesty has become a war against farmers. It's become a genocide.
The recent mass suicide in India should be a wake up call to the rest of the world. The industrial agriculture model is literally killing our farmers.
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.