Cotton is an important cash crop in Pakistan and its production supports hundreds of thousands of farming families and their communities, but it is not without its challenges. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has worked with field-level partner, WWF-Pakistan, for a decade to help farmers produce cotton in a more sustainable way.

Hammad Naqi Khan, CEO WWF-Pakistan, has been with WWF for 21 years and has seen BCI evolve from concept to reality. ”I was involved with BCI even before BCI was “born’,” says Hammad. ”Now WWF-Pakistan works with more than 140,000 BCI Farmers.”

Almost 20 years ago, in 1999, WWF-Pakistan turned their attention to cotton production. The organisation started working with a few villages and a few dozen cotton farmers to focus primarily on reducing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. ”We were looking for solutions that were good for farmers and the environment,” explains Hammad. ”Chemical use in cotton production was a big issue in Pakistan – it was having a negative impact on both human health and biodiversity.”

By 2006, WWF-Pakistan had created a committee to focus on sustainable cotton production. The first committee meeting convened key cotton experts to discuss the development of a sustainable cotton standard. ”We asked ourselves how it would work in practice. We wanted to ensure the standard was farmer-centric,” says Hammad. ”It also needed to be inclusive, not exclusive, and it had to work alongside existing standards and supply chain structures.” This exercise was repeated in India, Brazil and Mali, before the Better Cotton Initiative officially launched in 2009.

The cotton programme that WWF-Pakistan was operating at the time gave BCI a platform to start implementing the Better Cotton Standard System – BCI’s holistic approach to sustainable cotton production which covers all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic – on the ground. Just a year later, in 2010, the first bale of Better Cotton was produced in Pakistan. ”It was a special occasion and a significant milestone for BCI, for WWF and for Pakistan,” says Hammad. ”The economy of Pakistan is so dependent on cotton. When the first bale of Better Cotton was produced there was a lot of excitement.”

Over the subsequent decade, BCI and WWF-Pakistan have continued to support farmers through training and capacity building. ”The farmer Learning Groups organised by WWF-Pakistan provide a great place to discuss farming challenges and find solutions. We can exchange ideas and learn from one other,” says Lal Bux, a BCI Farmer from Rahim Yar Khan.

”In Pakistan today, good quality cotton seed, chemical use and water are key challenges faced by cotton farmers,” explains Hammad. ”The other challenge is profit. Farmers sometimes feel less incentivised to grow cotton because the profit margins are low. Price determines production. If farmers do not receive a good price for their cotton, they may decide to switch to growing other crops, such as sugar cane. However, the demand for cotton as a natural fibre is still high in Pakistan.”

Although BCI and WWF-Pakistan do not dertermine the price of Better Cotton, they work with cotton farmers to help them improve their profitability by reducing costly inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. ”Joining the BCI Programme was a turning point in my farming life. I made up my mind to adopt better farm management practices that are cost efficient and results orientated. People have been surprised by the effort I have put into my fields, and now they come to me for advice,” says BCI Farmer Master Nazeer from Rahim Yar Khan.

BCI’s long-term vision is that sustainable cotton production becomes common-place around the globe and that governments and local organisations take responsibility for training cotton farmers on sustainable agricultural practices. This process can be seen in practice in Pakistan. In the coming years, WWF-Pakistan seeks to reduce its on-the-ground presence to take more of a strategic position. ”We want local organisations to take ownership of the implementation of the Better Cotton Standard. In the long-term they are best placed to understand and address the changing needs of local cotton farmers,” says Hammad.

In a world that is increasingly aware of the need to recognise and act on the various aspects of sustainability, BCI has also given retailers and brands a way to get involved in the sustainability agenda. ”There was always a strong business interest,” says Hammad. ”From the start, BCI provided a pre-competitive space where everyone was working together towards a common goal.” Today, BCI works with more than 100 Retailer and Brand Members to source Better Cotton and drive demand for more sustainably produced cotton.

Hammad concludes: ”To see Better Cotton account for 15% of global production used to be a dream. Now it’s a dream come true.”

Image: © WWF-Pakistan 2013 |Salehput, Sukkur, Pakistan.

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