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The whakapapa of our cotton : The Seed and Farm. Chapter 3

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The whakapapa of our cotton : The Seed and Farm. Chapter 3
In November 2019, we set out on a journey to trace the whakapapa of our threads. We wanted to understand and document the journey each fibre takes on it's way to you. 
Whakapapa is often translated succinctly as 'geneology', but as anyone who knows more than one language will vouch for- the ability to translate a word from one language to another often strips an entire context of understanding and relationship from the word. 
Whakapapa is about more than a line of descent of geneology from a western sense, but embodies a whole framework for seeing and understanding the world. It is a thread that links the animate and inanimate, the known and the unknown, the terrestrial and spiritual worlds. It binds all things, mapping and weaving relationships so that 'mythology, legend, history, knowledge, tikanga (custom), philosophies and spiritualities are organised, reserves and transmitted from one generation to the next'.
So as we set out, we sought to understand not just the linear progression from seed to fabric, but to deepen our awareness of the relationships, people, environment, challenges and aspirations that are tied up in these threads, and from this understanding, deepen our own sense of relationship and accountability to these people, lands and threads.


Our Cotton begins it's journey in the fields of Adilabad, India, down a long bumpy dirt road, where small settlements spot the landscape.There's a mixture of modern builds and earth-clad homes along the way between fields and fields of green and white.
We were greeted at the village of Gunuur, a small cotton farming community, by a kind of pōwhiri.
As we pulled up there were waiata, and as we approached the mana whenua we were garlanded with strings of marigolds, and adorned with tika (a red powder) applied at the crease between your eyebrows. The whole village was out, wāhine in their best saris, tamariki giggling and spurring each other on in impossibly clean bright clothes, tāne in their ever comfortable looking dhoti.
We were welcomed into the village and sat together, the entire village gathered around us. We were introduced to the farmers, their whanau, and there was an opportunity for both mana whenua (the locals) and manuhiri (us visitors) to introduce ourselves a little and find common ground. It was a pleasure to be able to connect as a wāhine and a mother, share how I too prepare kai for my whānau and tend a māra. The whenua may look different, but many of our experiences are shared.
There's a sense of fierce pride and mana in this village. It's immaculate to begin with, no rubbish to be spotted anywhere which is something of  a miracle in this part of the world!
Every part looks as if it's been swept and maintained.
The roads are made of dirt. The whare are basic and practical.
Baby goats dance around the edges, a bull lazes in the mid morning heat, we're told of the rubbish and composting schemes, the solar light that has been funded by fair trade that allows for village gatherings at night outside of their homes (no street lights here), and the near self sufficiency that these whānau work hard to maintain. They buy-in sugar and oil as far as I remember, and everything else comes from their land. All their kai is grown organically using crop rotation and permaculture principles which allows them a diversity of income streams when cotton is not in season.
They speak proudly about their transition many years ago to being an entirely organic certified village, and the  economic and health benefits they've  experienced since.

Cotton is a renewable, biodegradable natural wonder. But its cultivation requires a lot from our taiao. Pesticides and fertilizers not only harm the ecosystem – they cost human lives.

Converting from conventional to organic is not simple or quick process. It takes 3 years for soil to become pesticide free, so the first 3 years of harvest cannot be sold as organic cotton, meaning more work and less income. 3 years is a long time in the life of a small farmer – it could mean no food for their whānau.

The Intiative we work with, Chetna Organic, trains whānau to grow different cash crops they can sell during the transition, has established seed banks (wāhine are esteemed as the intergenerational 'keepers of the seed'!), runs schools for children, coordinates the training and up-skilling of community members. Essentially they make sure that farmers who commit to the organic kaupapa have a good  quality of life, and an incentive to convert to organic cotton.

The efforts have paid off. Even if it takes 3 years, it is a good idea because they get better health and a higher net income. Doing it together as a community helps as well. Today, the village has 96 families with a total of 287 members and is a part of a co-operative of 4000 farmers. All farms in this village are 100% organic, rainfed farms and have been growing organic cotton for 10 years.

By western standards it looks 'poor' in a material sense, but speaking with the community, there was no sense of 'poverty' here. 
Just beyond their whare, are the fields where the cotton grows.
The seed is planted around July-an Indian summer, after the fields have been cleared of their earlier food crops. Its planted at a seasonal time when its growth is fueled by the rainy season and so doesn't require irrigation.
The seeds are planted in rows, with companion planting among them- in about a week to ten days, you'll see signs of life. 2-3 months from sowing and the plant will begin to flower the most beautiful of deep pink blooms before they fade out to a creamy buttery shade.
Once the flowers fall away, its replaced with a little green pod which slowly turns a deep black and hardens.  They call this pod a 'boll'.
It takes around 70 more days under the heat of the sun before it's ready to be harvested.
The boll- A fluffy fiberous growth that is picked by hand, is not that different to the cotton balls you'd find at the supermarket- for something familiar to compare it too. They're soft and strong.
Each Boll weighs in at approximately 4 grams. 2-3g of which are the seed, not the fibres, which will be separated out at the next stage.
Wāhine, without competition, are the quickest and most dexterous pickers. An apron tied at their waist, these wāhine will harvest from dawn until dusk, singing as the work. Two hands at a time expertly stripping the ripe bolls from the plant. Tāne also pick, but also carry the massive sacks to collect the cotton. A proficient wāhine they told us, could pick 60-70kg of cotton each day (a tāne came in around 35-40kg ). Thats around 17,500 individual cotton bolls harvested per wāhine per day!!!!
As each sack is filled, it is carried back to the village to a now purpose built storehouse and weighing shed (another fair trade premium supported initiative). Here, they're able to ensure it remains clean and dry and free of any pests. They can store it here and wait to ensure that they get the best market price for their mahi.
From the store house, they're carried by truck to the ginning mill for the next stage of processing- that will be chapter 4!
We'll also create a follow on from this chapter that will look at the social initiatives that are tied into this organic cotton cooperative of which these whānau are a part.

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