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Rough Cut: Seeds of Suicide
Behind the Lens: Interview with Chad Heeter

Filmmaker Chad Heeter shares how he first came across the story of the suicide epidemic among farmers in India, his opinions on whether technology is helping or hurting farmers and his path to environmental filmmaking.

How did you first come across the story of debt-ridden farmers in India committing suicide?

Each morning last summer during a two month-stint as an intern with the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi and Kashmir, I'd take my stack of newspapers to a cafe to read. I followed this suicide story all summer. I kept wanting to understand the desperation that drove these farmers. P. Sainath, a reporter for The Hindu, has best covered this issue for years. I recommend hunting down a copy of his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

By the end of the summer, I decided to go to Warangal, in Andhra Pradesh, and find some of these families. My goal with a story like this is to put a face on large, unwieldy global issues. This kind of storytelling -- focusing on individuals -- helps us understand and demystify what otherwise become dry statistics or distant headlines. Hopefully, someone watching this will see how globalization, trade policies and new technologies impact the Prabhakar and Sathaya families in a village on the other side of the globe and will maybe get a sense of how we're connected to them.

You say in the film that debt has driven more than 25,000 Indian farmers to suicide since 1997. What is the debt pressure on an individual farmer?

I'll take Pariki as an example. On two acres he purchased a few years ago, he grows turmeric and Bt cotton. He was $1,750 in debt, and paying 36 percent interest annually. As a laborer, working seven days a week for the moneylender, he'll earn $375 a year. He told me that if his crops succeed this year, he could earn an additional $500 to $600. So he keeps falling further and further behind. He's been pressured to sell one acre of his land, but he refuses, as that's potential profit. But Pariki had a remarkable sense of faith that his fields would prosper and he'd eventually pay back all of his debts.

The idea of suicide by pesticide is so heartbreakingly symbolic. How deliberate a statement is it?

Very deliberate, I think. Deliberate in the sense that they've got to go out and buy that last bottle of pesticide to do it. Politically, it's probably more reflected in the sheer numbers of those who chosen to kill themselves with agricultural chemicals.

Through the years the Indian government tended to blame the suicides on things like alcoholism or family problems, while economic causes related to farming were rarely addressed. And as far as the 25,000 suicides, I'd guess that it's somewhat higher. I saw the death certificate of one farmer. It mentioned poisoning, but no indication that it was a self-ingested. So it left me wondering if that suicide would be recorded.

According to some scientists who have studied this problem, these genetically engineered (GE) cotton seeds required 15 percent more overall investment than did non-GE seeds, but the yield benefit was just 5 percent more. Is there any chance that the government will compensate farmers who were essentially forced into a losing business venture?

There is compensation in some cases, either from the government or from the seed producer. In "Seeds of Suicide," the Gugoluthu brothers -- they own the fields that Kiran Sakkhari assesses in the film -- planned to file a complaint with the seed dealer, claiming they were given spurious Bt seeds. But as Dr. Sakkhari explained in the film, the dealer will probably say, "We'll send the company people." I asked him if it was likely that "company people" would ever show up. He laughed and said, "Not likely." So for a small farmer to see any compensation would probably require jumping through more hoops than they care to. And the compensation, I was told, would only be partial.

From farmers in both Andhra Pradesh and up north in Kashmir, I'd often hear complaints about both spurious seeds and chemicals. They'd tell me that the pack of seeds they purchased did not contain the seeds as labeled or were mixed with "bad" seeds. Another common complaint was that fungicides and pesticides were diluted by the dealer, and thus not full strength and did not work in the field. The government says they monitor this, but it's never to the satisfaction of farmers. Dealers and government scientists would often blame the lack of education amongst the farmers. Sifting through this blame game was one of the challenges in reporting the story.

You emphasize that access to credit, education and water are needed to end this epidemic, and you suggest that organic farming might be a solution. What do you think the prospects are for organic cotton cultivation in India?

They seem slim, but more farmers are taking on this alternative each year. There were only 120 organic cotton farmers in Warangal District last summer. It's an unfortunate irony that I have to refer to organic farming as an alternative, when 40 years ago that was the norm. What's going on now with NGOs' introducing organic practices to farmers is actually retraining, or what some researchers call "reskilling." I like the concept of reskilling because it emphasizes the fact that the dependence on chemical inputs has caused a deskilling of the farmer, a loss of skills that were passed down from generation to generation.

Farming requires a tremendous amount of knowledge, and historically in India, farming successfully was part of the survival skills package taught to everyone in a village. Those survival skills have been lost. Now when a pest attacks a farmer's crop, farmers take a trip to the pesticide dealer. They ask the dealer for guidance and direction. Which is the "best" insecticide to use, according to the dealer? Well, if you don't know any better, it's probably the most expensive one. The farmers want to save their crops, so they'll make the purchase and borrow money, if they need to. Reskilling and education of the farmer is the highest priority. Then they can make the best decision as to how to manage their crops.

You suggest that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies triggered what's called the pesticide treadmill and the ensuing epidemic of farmer suicides. Can you explain the link between international policy and 25,000 deaths?

Policies directed by World Bank and the IMF have significant influence on the individual farmer. Their agriculture model promotes high-tech, mechanized, chemical-dependent farming. It works on the assumption that one size fits all, but in reality, that "size" only favors large and medium farmers. Few peasant farmers have the funds to make the significant investment required by the model, so they go for loans or buy on credit, with annual interest rates reported as high as 80 percent. You can see that once a small farmer takes this plunge, the pressure to turn a profit is incredibly intense.

In "Seeds of Suicide," you focus on GE cotton. Are there any other GE crops grown in India? Has there been any change in India's policy toward GE crops?

Right now there's only cotton. And the politics around it are very messy. In the press, you'll read just as many stories touting the success of Bt as you will about the failures. In fact, more farmers are planting Bt cotton this year. As of 2004, there were 10.5 million hectares under cotton cultivation in India. One report says 500,000 hectares was Bt cotton. Andhra Pradesh is the leading producer of Bt, with 300,000 farmers growing it on 70,000 hectares. Farmers in the Warangal District, where I shot "Seeds of Suicide," purchased the most packs of Bt seeds. Warangal District is also where the greatest number of suicides have taken place in Andhra Pradesh over the years.

Did you talk to Monsanto -- the developer of Bt cotton -- at all while researching the story?

No, I didn't, as my intent for the story was to stay close to the farmer. Monsanto wasn't the focus. So my approach in reporting the piece was to speak to people who would be in direct contact with the farmer -- field researchers, the district director of agriculture, dealers and NGOs. In speaking to officials and experts, I typically found that the further removed someone was from the farmer in the field, the more they felt everything was rosy and placed the blame back on the ill-educated farmer. But many experts did agree that the monoculture-based, chemical-intensive farming has badly damaged the country's soil and reduced fertility. Unfortunately, many of these experts still advocate the use of even more chemical inputs in order to restore fertility. One government scientist I spoke to agreed that farmers needed more education, but that the education needed to be in proper use of chemical fertilizers.

I don't view "Seeds of Suicide" as being anti-Bt, nor am I anti-technology.

What practices could prevent this cycle of crop failure and debt?

I'd like to see models for the small farmer that make technology more affordable and reduce the financial risk for the small farmer. There are those like Dr. Sakkhari, who teaches farmers about integrated pest management, or IPM. Examples of IPM are the use of light traps -- a simple contraption of a light bulb and a pail of water that attracts insects and drowns them -- powered for a few hours after dusk. But again, for any of these models to take hold, they will need support and promotion from the government. I asked Pariki if he had considered growing organic cotton next time around, using neem-seed extract from neem trees that grow readily in his village. [Neem extract is a common organic-based insecticide used worldwide.] He quickly responded that it might be a good idea, but added, "What would happen if everyone adopted this and then used up all of the neem?" It was a fair question on his part. He seemed not to trust its viability because, as he says in the film, the farmers in his village typically model the wealthy landowners, and they have gone with chemical-intensive farming.

Your military background is unusual in this line of work. How did you go from the military to environmental filmmaking?

Well, it hasn't been a direct route.

After high school, I attended The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, for two years, but I never went into the Navy as I had originally planned. One afternoon at The Citadel I was sitting in my room, reading about Costa Rica's rain forest in National Geographic, and I thought that instead of pursuing an English degree, I'd study biology.

After my sophomore year, I transferred from The Citadel to the University of California at Santa Cruz, grew out my hair and completed a degree in marine biology. During one winter break, I hiked around Costa Rica. The experience changed me. I wanted to discover more of the planet. I wanted to go abroad after graduation, maybe join the Peace Corps, but first I joined Teach for America. I taught high school science in Macon, Georgia. After that, I spent two years in Japan teaching English, in a village of 1,900 people in the Southern Japan Alps, and studied Japanese pottery making. After Japan, I went to New York to study filmmaking. A few more pit stops -- and a lot of help from friends and family -- got me to where I am now. Like I said, an indirect route, but I believe each experience was helping to prepare me for the next step.

What other films have you produced?

Last December, in Cambodia, I shot a film about a struggling fisherman on the Tonle Sap River. The Tonle Sap meets the Mekong River in the capital of Phnom Penh. Both rivers have seen massive declines in fish catches over the past few years due to drought and siltation, as well as decreasing water levels attributed to huge dam projects upriver on the Mekong in China. While this fisherman was able to make a living a few years ago, today he can barely support his family of five. He's faced with dreadful decisions, such as selling one of his daughters to his neighbor.

I've also made three short, fictional comedies -- at least I think they're funny.

In India, before I shot "Seeds of Suicide," I reported a story on a dabbawalla -- essentially, a lunch-delivery man -- in Bombay.