The COVID-19 Pandemic Shows the Importance of Working with Nature: Reflections from a Fair Trade Leader

In this latest edition of our Field Notes series where we speak with fair trade farmer organizations facing the COVID-19 pandemic, we share a conversation from Bareilly in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Gero Leson and Rob Hardy from Dr. Bronner’s Special Operations Team spoke with Nihal Singh of the farming association MD Pavitramenthe, growers of regenerative, organic mint. This conversation took place on April 29, 2020. The following is excerpted from their conversations.

See other conversations in this series.

The Indian government ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 24th, 2020. People are not supposed to leave their homes and all transport services have been suspended. The largest visible impact of the lockdown is in our nearest big city, Bareilly. There is very little traffic on the usually overcrowded roads. The air is amazingly fresh and clear, and the river is clean—I’ve never seen our environment like this. Restaurants are closed, but some grocery stores are open from seven to eleven in the morning.

Construction has stopped and many workers have lost their jobs. Government provides some food support and guarantees rent so that renters won’t lose housing.

In the villages where Pavitramenthe works, our farmers are allowed to work in the fields—but initially, they were allowed to work only two people at a time. Now this has been relaxed to five at a time, acknowledging harvest labor demands. Since the lockdown started on March 24, Pavitramenthe’s field officers and I have stayed in regular contact with farmers. They told us that they, the farmers and storekeepers, have access to food and cash and are able to get by. The people suffering worst in their villages are landless farmworkers who cannot work due to restriction on the number of people in the field. Many have no access to cash or food.

Fair Trade Farmer Organizations Support Communities

Pavitramenthe providing food, community support

We realized that these landless farmworkers needed help urgently. We compiled a list of what came out to be 4,000 needy workers and began planning a simple but effective distribution of foods, spices, school materials and other basic necessities to the workers and their families. Typically, there are six people per family, for a total of about 25,000 people.

Our staff packages the items in bags at our purchasing center and then uses three trucks to visit village after village. We keep a list of recipients and have them sign for receipt. Our head farmers who are familiar with everyone in their village will make sure that food packages reach the needy.

We completed our first delivery to 4,000 families in mid-April, the second is under way and includes more fruits and vegetables and traditional medicinal herbs, such as tulsi and chamomile. Women in one village are sewing some 100,000 respiratory masks for distribution to adults and children in the villages.

Fair Trade Partnerships Provide Support without Discrimination

About 500 of the 4,000 recipients of aid are Muslims, corresponding to their share of the population in this part of Uttar Pradesh. Pavitramenthe buys mint oil from Hindu and Muslim farmers alike. In the case of predominantly Muslim villages, the people out of work are usually not agricultural workers—since that work is mostly done by Hindus. Instead, they tend to work as laborers in manufacturing and mechanical work, such as welding. In both cases, Pavitramenthe’s head farmers pointed out workers in need who were then included in the distribution of food and other goods.

The seed money for the initial $50,000 needed for the first emergency delivery was provided generously by Dr. Bronner’s and matched by Pavitramenthe’s Fair Trade Fund. Dr. Bronner’s and Pavitramenthe then jointly applied for a grant from the German Development Organization GIZ who will match Pavitramenthe’s and Dr. Bronner’s contribution in staff time and materials. The bottom line: for a total cash amount of about $150,000, we will be able to supply approximately 25,000 people with food, herbs, soap and even schooling materials for six weeks.

Pavitramenthe Workers sitting in fields with masks during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Pavitramenthe community relief packages shared with social distancing and masks for all.

Home Gardens Offer “A Gift” Amid Confusion

We expect to do a third food delivery in mid-May—and our hope is that by then, most farmworkers will be allowed back to the fields for work on the mint harvest. The focus of our program will then shift to supporting farmers in their dealings with brokers and government. There is much confusion about government minimum prices for crops. In addition, their payment is slow, and dealers take advantage of the closure of public markets and limited competition to push down prices. Unfortunately, government workers can also be prone to advantaging themselves over farmers too.

We will also support home gardening programs for farmworkers and farmers. In this situation being able to grow your own food is a gift that people—even many farmers—need to be reminded of.

Fair Trade and Regenerative, Organic Agriculture Help Align with Nature

Our relief program fits in very well with our ongoing commitment to supporting communities through fair trade practices and building long-term relationships with farmers. It is just one example of how we engage, it’s part of our business model.

To me, the pandemic illustrates the point that in the long term, we cannot operate in conflict with nature, trying to conquer it. Rather we need to align with nature and understand how it works.

As a practicing Hindu I subscribe to the concept of the five elements in nature. Covid-19 reminds us powerfully that we are ‘All One’—that nature does not discriminate between countries or people. That, if we don’t work with nature, if we exploit it instead, that it ‘fights us back!’. And more crises like this one will keep happening. So, our good health and livelihoods are dependent on working with and for nature—by working with regenerative, organic and fair trade principles and methods we are able to do this. In turn it provides us with sustenance and community that has been a big part of supporting our situation at Pavitramenthe now and in the future.


“Oberlin Summer – Mint” by Edsel L is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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