Don’t count on U.S. ag exports to developing nations just yet


The walls of the community room are plastered in posters, all but one written in Hindi, the main language of India.

The lone English poster lists eight key goals of this cooperative farm’s women members.

“Ownership of land and equipment,” reads one. “Stake in mainstream market,” notes another.

Building. From what we see and hear, these members of India’s 720,000-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association, whose acronym, SEWA, means “service” in Hindi, are meeting the goals on this tiny, sand-choked farm in Gujarat, an hour’s flight southwest of Delhi.

With little more than water, wit and will they have turned 10 acres of government-owned wasteland (the rent is an astonishing 40 rupees, about 80 cents a year, for 30 years) into a family- and village-sustaining oasis of mango, tea and other cash crops.

“We used to work in the fields,” says Reema Nanavaty of SEWA, “now we own them.”

Empowered. As empowering as ownership is to India’s self-employed today – and 94 percent of all Indian women are self-employed – the last goal on the poster reflects tomorrow’s greatest unknown: “Globalization preparedness,” it reads.

“Globalization is a macro-reality,” explains Nanavaty as she, a dozen or so SEWA workers and 10 journalists from the U.S. and Europe visit in the shade of the community room.

“But it is far removed from micro-level farmers.”

Threat and hope. Like many poor, politically powerless farmers in the developing world, SEWA views globalization as both a threat and a hope.

The threat is as present and pressing as the Indian sun: more market and wage vulnerability for unskilled workers as technology advances on every farm and farming village.

The hope is equally real; like establishing new “ties to corporations and then go into export markets,” to sell SEWA-produced salt, spices, fruit, linen, pottery and tobacco, explains Nanavaty.

Selling short. Given the World Trade Organization’s push to make the world economically flat, outsiders might easily sell India’s self-employed farmers short.

That would be a mistake. One SEWA member’s story, interpreted by Nanavaty, relates the grit and flexibility millions of farmers are learning through organizations like SEWA to carve out new futures.

Six years ago, relates the member, SEWA recruited her but she declined the overture. Finally, with little else to lose, she began to attend evening cooperative meetings.

Most times, however, she arrived late and was soundly chided for her tardiness. This is a cooperative, she was told, all must be equally diligent.

Getting it right. Finally, “I picked up courage,” she says, to explain her embarrassing tardiness: at the end of each long day in the fields, she had to walk to and from a neighboring village to get drinking water for her family because her village had no potable well.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed, she was told; “then SEWA got to work to help.”

Soon, a few women were trained to maintain hand pumps on village wells to ensure villagers like her had access to water.

Soon thereafter, over 100 of the cooperative’s women were trained in pump maintenance and now SEWA has a government contract to maintain 1,054 village hand pumps around Gujarat to supply water, employment and income.

Not flinching. Similarly, the cooperative didn’t flinch when it moved into the main market in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital, to sell its food and wares.

“Our shop was stoned and the women beaten,” relates a SEWA member, and people “who work hard to keep a system that favors size would send goons to drive us away.”

But SEWA didn’t strike back; it did the far more courageous thing – it stayed.

“Now we own a shop there, have voting rights and a license to sell,” she says.

The cooperative is a micro-model for the developing world’s billions of poor, powerless food producers. They may not embrace globalization, but they will bend so it fits into the sand and sun and simplicity of their circumstances.

And as they do, the American hope of exporting more food to the developing world will likely become a mirage in that same sand and sun.

(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at:

© 2004 ag comm

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