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Cotton trade: where does your T-shirt grow?


Organic Farming in Benin

Nicolas Agbigonon, organic farming pioneer and president of the farmers’ union of Djidja. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo for the Guardian


Powered by article titled “Cotton trade: where does your T-shirt grow?” was written by Susanna Rustin, for The Guardian on Saturday 9th August 2014 06.00 UTC

Moise Adihou stands by a rough wooden bench beneath a mango tree, surrounded by a small crowd that has gathered to hear his story.

“We were in the field,” he says. “Abraham came to visit after school to tell us he came first in his class. We were happy, so we wanted to celebrate.”

Adihou is a neat, sombre man in his 50s, and what he is describing took place in the village of Gaohungagon in the Zou department of Benin, West Africa. Abraham was 13 and Adihou’s eldest child.

“My wife went to the mill to grind some maize but the mill broke down. So she asked to borrow some flour and came home and cooked maize porridge for the family. When we ate it, Abraham fell down crying in pain. Then my wife doubled over and I felt cramps in my stomach. I was conscious it might be the flour and my brother said, ‘Let’s give it to the dog.’ So we did, and the dog began to vomit. We managed to get to the hospital. After three days I regained consciousness and they told me my son was better. Only when I came home did I learn that Abraham had died.”

Celestine was pregnant and took longer to recover. She stands in silence as her husband talks, visibly frustrated with the baby she carries on her back, whom she taps with a twig to stop her crying.

“We can’t blame the family who lent us the flour because they became sick, too,” she says. “I blame myself because I cooked the maize… We still think of him.”

Abraham Adihou was poisoned by a cotton pesticide mistakenly sprayed on maize in the village store room. Such tragedies are not uncommon. Cotton is the world’s most important non-food crop. It is also highly susceptible to pests such as cotton bollworm, and more pesticides are used on it per unit than on any other crop. They are used liberally in some of the poorest countries in the world, where farmers lack basic safety equipment such as gloves and glasses, as well as training. Health problems linked to pesticides include birth defects and the acute poisoning that can result from accidental ingestion. It’s common for contamination to occur where there’s no separate storage space and families live and work in cramped conditions. In 1990, the World Health Organisation estimated 1m poisonings annually and 20,000 deaths from pesticide poisoning.

Smallholder Farmers in Benin

‘We still think of him’: since Moise and Celestine Adihou’s 13-year-old son Abraham died of pesticide poisoning, they have become champions of organic farming. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo for the Guardian

In Benin, one 2001 study discovered 65 deaths, including 10 children under 10, in two districts in just one season. Cotton in Benin is watered by rain, without irrigation. Farmers live in mud huts and cook on open fires with no electricity. In the north of the country, cattle are used to pull ploughs. Elsewhere land is tilled by hand by the farmer, his wives (rural Beninese society is polygamous), children when they aren’t at school, and hired labourers. Yet, as in other developing countries, since the 1970s, cotton has mainly been farmed here using agrochemicals including, in some cases, the banned insecticide endosulfan, to raise yields.

Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last year, in which 1,130 people died, health and safety issues in the global garment industry have been under the spotlight. Reacting to pressure from NGOs, unions and politicians, some retailers are investing in improvements. But the farms from which high-street chains source their fabrics are only the first link in a supply chain that reaches across the world, and news of pesticide poisoning does not travel far.


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