Cotton farmers get organized

By Charles Scott
Alberto Malico, President of the National Cotton Producers Forum, said farmers need to become autonomous so they can realize the true rewards of their hard labor.

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Two years ago Alberto Malico was just one of some 300,000 cotton farmers in Mozambique struggling to make a living against the overwhelming odds of the forces of nature, the unfair contracts binding him to the cotton concession companies, and the inequitable international cotton markets.

Today he is an independent cotton producer and the President of FONPA, the National Cotton Producers Forum, which has organized small cotton farmers to become an equal partner with government and industry in improving the lives of small scale cotton farmers of Mozambique.

"The formation of a national forum is important because for the first time cotton farmers are represented at a national level and taken seriously by government and the cotton companies. We are now able to put pressure on government, raise the concerns of the small cotton farmers, and begin to address the imbalance of power relations between the concessions and the cotton growers," said Malico. "By joining together in associations we have found it easier to negotiate a better price for our cotton and to help each other by working together to improve our production and harvesting."

On a warm winter July afternoon in his home area of Naicole, in the largest cotton producing province of Nampula, Mr. Malico is meeting with local farmers to discuss the latest harvest and their concerns and needs. Two representatives of Oxfam America's partner, ABIODES (the Organic Agriculture, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Association) which steered the formation of FONPA, are attending to discuss a local pilot project introduced during the last season.

The pilot project provided seed, spraying equipment, training, and draft animals for plowing to 50 members of three local farmers associations. The aim was to increase the area of production and productivity, boost cotton quality and yield per hectare, and introduce sustainable agriculture.

ABIODES Field Coordinator, Isabel Mazive says the project has had a significant impact, "Fifty smallholder farmers were selected by their associations to cultivate one hectare (2.45 acres) for each producer, with a total area of 50 hectares. We estimate that the average yield per hectare will be 900 to 1200 kilos, in contrast to previous average yields of 300 to 600 kilos per hectare. Other farmers not directly participating in the initiative have also been able to hire the animal traction services at a reasonable cost determined by the associations. This income has been used to support the growth of the local associations."

Isora Jamal is one of the cotton farmers to have benefited from the pilot project. Standing in the family field surrounded by head-high cotton plants she is satisfied with this year's crop. "The animal traction has been a big help in preparing the land in time for planting and allowed me increase my area of cultivation. The training and services have definitely improved the amount and quality of my cotton. It also saved us women a lot of time and manual labor in the fields, which means we have been able to spend more time on the other food crops. The animals have also assisted with transportation and water collection," says Jamal.

Breaking the cycle of debt

The success of the project has also attracted the attention of the National Cotton Institute which now intends to extend the use of animal traction nationally. The Director of the Institute, Norberto Mahalambe, notes that the organization of the small-scale cotton farmers is vital for growth and stability in the industry. "Cotton has been one of the most stable cash crops in Mozambique for the last 100 years," he said. "There are over 350,000 cotton farmers supporting some 1.5 million dependents on this crop. Income from cotton pays school fees, medical bills and many other essential expenses."

Most of the small-scale cotton farmers in Mozambique are tied to contracts with the privatized cotton concession companies. Under this arrangement the companies provide seed in return for the cotton crop. However, the farmers complain that the inputs and services are of poor quality and many farmers end up owing the companies more than they receive in payment for their crops. This cycle of debt deepens every year. In response, FONPA is lobbying government for an agrarian policy that protects and improves the lives of cotton producers. They also want agriculture banks to finance cotton production and processing in order to improve the quality of cotton and the small farmers' income.

Oxfam America helped establish FONPA in 2005. Mahalambe, the director of the National Cotton Institute, said that Oxfam's support for FONPA "has been fundamental in assisting farmers to get organized into a national forum, able to negotiate with companies and the government. The farmers no longer stand alone and they are much more informed and capable."

Davie Malungisa, Oxfam America's trade and livelihoods expert said that FONPA is helping the farmers gain more power in determining how cotton is produced in Mozambique, but that they are looking to other activities as well. "In the coming months FONPA will focus on offering services such as access to finance, improved inputs, value addition and crop diversification," he said. The overall goal of this work: "To increased the income and food security of small cotton farmers."