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.
India's economy has grown at an average annual rate of 6.8 percent since 1994, reducing poverty by 10 percent. However, 40 percent of the world's poor live in India, and 28 percent of the country's population lives below the poverty line. More than one third live on less than a dollar a day, and 80 percent live on less than two dollars a day.
India's recent economic growth has been attributed to the service industry, but 60 percent of the workforce remains in agriculture.
The Indian government was forced to reform its agricultural policy in the late 1960s when an imbalance in food imports was exacerbated by two years of drought in 1965 and 1966. World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development chipped in assistance to develop high-yield rice and wheat "miracle seeds." These seeds, combined with the Indian government's assistance with modern farm machinery, price incentives and a more efficient food distribution system, resulted in what came to be known as the Green Revolution.
The new seeds and fertilizers worked for many: India's food production rose from 72 million tons in 1965-66 to 152 million tons in 1983-84, eliminating the country's dependence on food grain imports. In addition to their planting the new seeds, farmers' use of chemical fertilizers jumped from 1.1 million tons to more than 12.5 million tons in the first decade of the Green Revolution, and irrigated land grew from 74 million acres in 1965-66 to 111 million acres in 1988-89.
In the late 1980s, however, the Green Revolution began to fall apart as the chemical fertilizers rendered soil infertile. Farmers who had once diversified risk by growing as many as 30 different crops in their fields were dependent upon just one. As the quality of the soil deteriorated, they faced zero yields and an inability to pay their debts. Three years of drought beginning in 2001 further fueled the crisis.
Twenty-five thousand farmers have committed suicide under these circumstances since 1997. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone, 4,500 farmers have committed suicide in the past seven years. This does not include the number of family members of farmers who have also killed themselves.
Sources: "Harvesting Death," by Sarita Tukaram; CIA Factbook; Lonely Planet Guide: India; PBS; BBC.
CIA Factbook: India
Learn more about India's geography, people, government, economy, communications, military and transnational issues in the CIA's World Factbook on India.
"India PM Pledge Over Suicide Farmers"
This 2004 article from the BBC follows Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Andhra Pradesh after his election and covers his pledge to monetarily compensate families of suicide farmers.
"Suicide Spree on India's Farms"
The BBC profiles two casualties of the seasonal suicide deaths.
In this article, Dr. Vandana Shiva, a noted Indian physicist and ecological activist, suggests that part of the solution to India's agricultural crisis lies in making farming more "woman centered."
"Plea to West Over Indian Suicides"
Jenny Cuffe reports for the BBC on Indian farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh.
"The Damage Done: Aid, Death and Dogma"
In this 2005 report from Christian Aid, the organization blames British policy for the farmer suicides and calls for a change in its free trade policy. (PDF format)
"Aid U-turn Comes Too Late to Stop Thousands of Indian Suicides"
This 2005 article in The Guardian references the Christian Aid report as well as three separate studies in India that link Great Britain's liberalization policies with farmer suicides and poverty.
"Suicide Rate Spikes Among Farmers in India"
Listen to this NPR report from the summer of 2004 about the spike in the suicide rate in southern India.
"Gm Seeds in India"
This 2000 NPR report warned of the effect that genetically modified seeds were having on India.
"Harvest of Fear"
FRONTLINE and NOVA explore the intensifying debate over genetically modified food crops. Through interviews with scientists, farmers, biotech and food industry representatives, government regulators, and critics of biotechnology, this two-hour report presents both sides of the debate, exploring the risks and benefits and the hopes and fears of this new technology.
"Seeds of Conflict"
NOW and the BBC held a roundtable at the 2002 U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Read about the debate surrounding the issue of genetically modified foods and genetic diversity.
This U.C. San Diego site details how the bacillus thuringiensis toxin, often referred to as Bt, kills insects.
Food and Environment
At this site, the Union of Concerned Scientists cautions that new pesticides are not a viable solution to insect control.
"Centre's 'No' to Bt in Andhra Pradesh"
Learn more about the debate surrounding the use of Bt cotton and read about a three-year study on the Andhra Pradesh region at India Together, an online Indian news magazine.
"BT Cotton in Andhra Pradesh: A Three-Year Assessment"
The full report debated in India Together can be found on this site.
Monsanto, the corporation that developed Bt cotton, explains in its Web site, in a section on agricultural biotechnology, that the company breeds new plant varieties that "fight plant pests -- insects, weeds and diseases -- that can be devastating to crops."