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Organic Cotton Takes Root in Central Asia

>From <www.alternet.org>

KYRGYZSTAN: Organic cotton tested in the south
28 Dec 2004

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks

BISHKEK, 28 December (IRIN) - Farmers in the south of Kyrgyzstan have
organically produced their first 24 mt of cotton fibre. Organic agriculture
is predicted to take off by 2006, allowing local farmers the opportunity to
increase their standard of living while at the same time safeguarding the
environment.

"I think I have chosen the right way to farm, Raimov Makambai, a farmer
from the Jalalabat region who recently switched to organic farming, told
IRIN. "It's better for the environment and for people's health."

"I converted to organic farming because I want to hand over clean and
fertile land to my children. I want to give them good farming know-how so
that they can live off the land in the future," Mirzaakim Kurbashev, another
farmer, from Blagoveshenka village in Jalalabat region, told IRIN.

To date, some 40 farmers in the Jalalabat region have converted from
conventional to organic agriculture, with another 160 ready to do so in
2005.

By 2006, local farmers are expected to produce 110 mt of cotton fibre,
which will be certified as organic. More importantly, in the future not only
cotton but other organic products will be grown and sold both locally and
abroad.

The organic agriculture initiative belongs to the Organic Cotton Production
and Trade Promotion Project, financed by the Swiss State Secretariat for
Economic Affairs, the Dutch-based Hivos fund and the Swiss Association for
International Cooperation Helvetas.

Helvetas, which implements the project, brings to Kyrgyzstan its experience
in organic cotton production from Mali, India and Tanzania. In these
countries, conversion from traditional to organic agriculture has helped to
stabilise the economic situation, as well as improve the health of the local
population and the environment.

Soil in the project area was once considered one of the most fertile in the
world. But following decades of bad agricultural management its quality has
been degraded substantially.

"Cotton is one of those difficult crops which requires the use of many
inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and defoliants. Intensive cotton growing
leads not only to the degradation of the soil but dramatically harms
people's health," Ilya Domashov, coordinator of programmes on sustainable
development in the ecological movement Biom, told IRIN.

Extensive cotton growing in the Central Asian region and the use of
chemicals has resulted in an ecological crisis throughout much of the Aral
Sea region. "In this regard, organic agriculture could help to decrease the
threat of dangerous chemicals to nature and people's health," Domashov
explained.

And while organic agriculture is not yet widely popular in the largely
mountainous former Soviet republic, farmers nevertheless are beginning to
realise its advantages. Economically, organic cotton commands 20 percent
more on average in its selling price than regularly grown cotton.

The organic cotton produced in Kyrgyzstan has a purchase guarantee from a
Swiss cotton trading company. In the first two years the cotton is called
"first/second-conversion-year cotton" and the buyer purchases it at a
conventional price. However, in 2006 when their cotton is certified as
organic for the first time, they will be paid in full by the trading
company.

That's good news for farmers in the region, with demand for organic food
and ecologically produced textiles continuing to grow both in Europe and
America. It is estimated that the share of organic cotton in the Swiss
market will grow from 0.1 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2007.

"In Western Europe people are ready to pay higher prices for the organic
cotton. They are aware of the ecological problems in the world and want to
be responsible for the protection of the environment," Nicolas Boll, manager
of the Bio-Cotton project in Jalalabat, told IRIN.

Also, many people prefer organic cotton for health reasons as it is
hypoallergenic. "From the macro-economic point of view it makes sense for
Kyrgyzstan to invest in value-added crops such as organic cotton in order to
be able to compete with neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan and China,
which produce cotton in large quantities," Karin Fueg, Helvetas programme
director in Kyrgyzstan, remarked.

Meanwhile, the project continues to seek farmers who can cope with the
conversion to organic agriculture. "We are looking at their farm conditions
and at their motivation," Boll explained.

"We do not want to see only those driven just by economic reasons, who come
because they've heard the price for the organic cotton is higher. We welcome
those who have realised that their soil fertility is decreasing and want to
change that. They are the special kind of farmers, the pioneers," he
maintained.

But converting to organic agriculture does not suit all farmers, who must
refrain from the use of mineral fertilisers, treated seeds, synthetic
pesticides and genetically modified organisms - all techniques of
conventional agriculture.

Farms are checked five times per year to ensure that the cotton is grown
organically. In 2004, 34 percent of farmers could not comply with the
requirements of organic agriculture and had no choice but to leave the
project.