The web-documentary and exhibition project White Gold considers the social and ecological consequences of global cotton farming. Cotton is in our clothes, in banknotes, cattle feed, gauze, toothpaste, and film rolls. All the while, cotton is traded more unfairly than any other commodity, and its reputation as a natural product is easily exposed as an illusion: cotton uses up more pesticides than any other plant, devastates entire regions such as the Aral Sea due to its excessive thirst, acts as the Trojan horse of genetic engineering, and drives the global industrialization of agriculture.
Combining still photography with elements of documentary film White Gold bridges the gamut between magazine publications and web-documentaries to multi-channel video installations. It was produced over a six year period in Texas, Burkina Faso, Brazil, India and Central Asia.
While India is shining in the cities and at the small top of its society the country faces the worst agricultural crisis since decades.
In India 60 percent of the population still depends directly or indirectly on agriculture. Essentially it is the largest farming community in the world. But this India of villages and small farms is increasingly neglected and often abandoned in favor of the new economy based in industry and cities. Following the logic of industrialized agriculture India could do with a maximum 20% of its farmers, setting half its population in danger of extinction.
The most obvious sign for the hopeless demoralization of the rural population are the mass suicides of farmers. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) more than 300,000 farmers committed suicide since India joined the WTO in 1995.
Killing Seeds investigates the social costs of cotton production in the Vidarbha region. In six short films it offers multiple entry levels and readings of the situation around the mass suicides of India‘s farming community.
Chapter 1 follows Dauwlat Tekam’s family in their daily struggles after his father committed suicide and looks at the commercialization of seeds as the driving force behind the economic mess farmers are in:
Chapter 2 documents the cotton harvest and considers the era of privatization that pushed the Indian farming community to the edge:
In Chapter 3 we meet Diwakar Tapase who survived a suicide attempt drinking pesticides. He concludes: “The government don’t want the farmers to live. They do not kill us, but they don’t let us live. They give us saline, saline, saline – little infusions to keep us alive. Do not give us saline – we want to die!”
Chapter 4 follows the cotton from the villages to the market where hundreds of farmers wait for the traders to consider their cotton. An anonymous moneylender explains his business and why he isn’t responsible for the plight the farmers:
In Chapter 5 the economic reality of the garment market and the role of subsidies are considered while we follow the transformation of raw cotton into yarn.
Chapter 6 finally closes the suicide cycle in Vidharbha. The storyline follows Bim Bhai as she prepares the farewell to the soul of her late husband a year after his suicide.
Cotton is the catalyst for changes that will redefine agriculture in the coming decades. Designed to reduce labor costs in high paying western countries genetically modified cottonseeds are increasingly planted all over the world. With this patented seeds, which have to be bought every year the farmer is loosing his social, cultural and economic identity as a producer and becomes a consumer of expensive seeds and chemicals. To stay profitable the farmer has to industrialize his operation and increase his acreage, pushing other farmers out of business.
In 1946 the average size of the US cotton farm was 17 acres and there were more than a million cotton farmers. Today 25.000 are left and cotton farms average over 1,000 acres. Without the subsidies of around US$ 3 billion annually the farmers could not survive. These subsidies are one the main reason the world market price for cotton is pushed down below the production costs of farmers in Africa and India, resulting in bankruptcy and farmers suicides.
According to the WWF the production of 1 kg of cotton uses 7,000 to 29,000 liters of water because three-quarters of cotton grows under irrigation in dry, warm countries. Cotton growing is directly implicated in the degradation of large-scale ecosystems including the Aral Sea in Central Asia.
Where only 50 years ago the worlds fourth largest lake guaranteed a mild climate, a chemical polluted salt dessert remains.
In Burkina Faso cotton is the main export-commodity in terms of value, and generates income for approximately 2 million people in the country. After years of suffering from US subsidies and intense lobbying by seed companies Burkina Faso is the first western African country to authorize genetically modified cotton, hoping the promised increase in yield will create a small profit for its farmers. This new strategy threatens Burkina Faso’s organic cotton, which dispenses with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, preserves the soil, reduces irrigation by forty percent and increases the income of farmers.
White Gold was published by Geo Magazin and Geo International in eleven Countries around the world. Ten short film where additionally published on the Geo iPad App.
Besides the publication in magazines White Gold has been shown as multichannel installations at the Hartware Medienkunstverein Dortmund, the James Gallery in New York and the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery in Montreal. White Gold has been presented on conferences about Radical Materialism and Environmental Justice, and was used as a best practice example for Sustainable Journalism.
Concept: Uwe H. Martin
Research: Uwe H. Martin & Frauke Huber
Photography, Video and Sound: Uwe H. Martin
Editing: Uwe H. Martin & Frauke Huber
Editing Consultants: Poul Madsen & Henrik Kastenskov
Color Grading: Frauke Huber
Sound Production: Uwe H. Martin
Production: Uwe H. Martin & Bombay Flying Club
Translations: Rajesh Shinde, Jimoh Lateef Dada
Curators: Inke Arns, Michèle Thériault, Katherine Carl, Barbara Cueto
Supported by: VG Bild-Kunst Grant
Awards: German Reporter Award, Salus Media Award, German Development Media Award