September 26, 2019
For anthropologist Andrew Flachs, fieldwork in Telanguana, India, was a critical way to understand the complex problems rural farmers face. In his new book Cultivating Knowledge, Flachs investigates how rural farmers come to plant genetically modified or certified organic cotton, sometimes during moments of agrarian crisis. Through months of on-the-ground ethnographic work, Flachs uncovered the unintended consequences of new technologies, which offer great benefits to some—but at others’ expense.
Today we share a few of Flachs’s photos and extended captions from his fieldwork, which offer insight into the stories and methods that have informed his work.
All photos and captions by Andrew Flachs:
IMG_1416: A young man in Parvathagiri squints through a pesticide mist as he sprays to control for whiteflies in his cotton crop, a pest unaffected by the pesticide genes for which cotton has been genetically modified. It took four hours to spray his seven acres in 100+ degree heat, he spraying and his brother running back and forth to a stream to gather water in which to dilute the pesticide for the mister. Worried that the monsoon rains would wash the pesticide off the cotton, he had hastily bought a cheaper generic brand pesticide from a local shop known to carry expired chemicals. By the end of the day, all three of us had a headache from the heat and the smell of the mist. “It was a waste”, he told me bitterly a few days later. The pesticide had only killed about a third of the insects eating his crop. Concerned about future losses, he ultimately had to travel to a larger town with a better agricultural shop to buy a more powerful pesticide. “What if this one doesn’t work either,” I asked. He shrugged. “I’ll have to get something even stronger,” he answered, stating the obvious (2013).
IMG_1438: A boy in Jangaon helps his family pick organic cotton after school before the bolls can be damaged, still wearing his school uniform. At harvest, it is imperative to gather and protect the cotton as soon as the lint erupts. Delays risk insect attacks, rain, or molds, all of which distort the fibers and discolor the cotton. Any such blemishes are cause to downgrade the lint at the open-air markets where commodities are sold to brokers. Organic agriculture depends upon ethical marketing campaigns to build trust with buyers in the United States, Europe, and East Asia. The development program that sponsors this farm advertises that they do not make use of child labor, and fundraises for school supplies and infrastructure that keeps students out of farm labor. Yet such distinctions are not completely applicable for many household farms, in which everyone is expected to pitch in for the greater good of the family. It would be technically correct but highly misleading to label this child labor – the children in this photo are simply doing their normal chores (2013).
IMG_0340: Although most of the research for this book took place on cotton farms, I also accompanied farmers to sell their cotton in larger markets. This led me to tour gins and learn more about the processing stage of the commodity chain. Cotton is plucked with seeds intact, and farmers speculate about which brands might have the heaviest seeds and thus fetch the highest prices. At gins, seeds are removed from the cotton lint and pressed into oil cakes that may then be fed to livestock. The lint is swept into piles and then compressed into square bales than can be loaded onto trucks. While much of this work is automated, teams of men run the bale pressers and manage the factory floors while women, often accompanied by young children who are not in school, sweep cotton into piles and use bamboo poles to clear obstructions in the gin. Here, a cotton gin worker and her son rest on cotton lint during a shift break at a gin in Warangal (2014).
Field pic: To ask questions about how farmers make decisions about their cotton seeds, I used a variety of social science methods: surveys on farm decisions, spatial analysis of farm locations, collection of wild and cultivated plants, participation in and observation of farm life, interviews, and focus groups. Here, a group of farmers compare notes on their cotton seeds with me on the edge of a vegetable and meat market in Hanamkonda. Focus groups like this give people space to debate the nuance of a topic, like which seeds to plant, and explore several possible positions through a conversation.
Andrew Flachs is an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University. Trained as an environmental anthropologist, his research spans sustainable agriculture, food studies, the anthropology of knowledge, and political ecology.