VOA Special English
Study: Farmer Suicides Increase Because of Climate Change


    When Rani’s husband took his own life, he left his family with debts they could not pay. Rani’s family farms in southern India. Now, she says her family’s farming days are over.

    “There are no rains,” Rani said. Rani is a 44-year-old woman from Tamil Nadu state. She was one of hundreds of farmers protesting in the capital New Delhi for increased government support for farmers. Her state has been affected by drought.

    “Even for drinking, we get water only once in 10 days,” she said.

    A farmer from Tamil Nadu state shows a skull, who he says are the remains of a Tamil farmer who took his own life. The living farmer is at a protest demanding good rates for their crops among other things in New Delhi, India on July 17, 2017.
    A farmer from Tamil Nadu state shows a skull, who he says are the remains of a Tamil farmer who took his own life. The living farmer is at a protest demanding good rates for their crops among other things in New Delhi, India on July 17, 2017.

    A recently released study suggests that more tragedies like Rani’s will happen.

    Higher temperatures are damaging crops and worsening droughts, the study says. It argues that the temperature and the number of people who take their lives are linked. It states that for every one degree above 20 degrees Celsius on any day during the growing season, an average of about 70 suicides take place.

    The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS.

    Scientists predict that the worldwide average temperature could rise up to 3 degrees by 2050. With hotter weather, more droughts and stronger storms are likely to take place. In addition, extreme weather changes could become more common. These changes could affect Indian farmers who depend on good weather for income.

    Tamma Carleton was the author of the study. She is a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies agriculture and resource economics.

    Carleton looked at numbers from India’s National Crime Records Bureau. She compared the number of people who took their own lives between 1967 and 2013 with other information on agricultural crops and temperature changes.

    Carleton estimated that hotter temperatures over the last 30 years “have already been responsible for over 59,000 suicides throughout India.”

    The study said that hotter temperatures were one of the reasons why there was a 6.8 percent increase in the number of people who took their own lives in India over 30 years.

    Vikram Patel is a psychiatrist and mental health expert with Harvard Medical School. Although he was not involved with the study, he helped write India’s first national mental health policy.

    Patel said farming is a risky job.

    He said the amount a farmer earns depends on the weather. And farming gets riskier with climate change.

    Patel said anything that affects their job negatively will affect farmers’ mental health.

    India has 1.3 billion people. For half of those people, agriculture is their source of income.

    Although farmers are an important part of Indian society, they have been struggling economically over the last 30 years.

    Many pressures weigh on India’s farmers

    Usually there is not a single reason for a person to take his or her own life. But, some reasons include losing crops, debt, poverty or a lack of community support.

    Farmers with a lot of debt may take their own lives so the government, in some cases, would give money to their families.

    “We may not be able to stop the world from warming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to address suicide,” Patel said.

    He said financial support and increased attention to mental health could help deal with the issue.

    Howard Frumkin is an environmental and occupational health professor at the University of Washington. He was also not involved in the study.

    Frumkin said the study shows that unfavorable weather leads to less crops, rural misery and more people taking their own lives.

    India’s farms are regularly being hit by strong storms, extreme drought and heat waves. This kind of weather is going to increase with higher temperatures. Some farmers in India still depend on rainfall instead of irrigation to water their crops.

    India’s farmers have held many protests for better crop prices, more help with loan repayments and water delivery systems among other issues. Such systems would help guarantee irrigation during droughts.

    Many farmers said they believe they have been ignored. Some are protesting at government offices and some have dumped large amounts of vegetables on roads to block traffic to bring attention to their situation.

    In the past month, hundreds of farmers have been protesting in a central New Delhi square. Some are holding human skulls that they say are from other farmers who have taken their own lives in Tamil Nadu. They say it will be a 100-day protest.

    They say they are protesting to “prevent the suicide of farmers who feed the nation.”

    On July 27, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh told lawmakers that 11,458 farmers took their own lives in 2016. That is the lowest number in 20 years. That year also had good temperatures and normal seasonal rains.

    Singh noted that for 2014 and 2015, the number of farmers who took their own lives increased by 9 percent. Those two years had a drought.

    The number of farmers who took their own lives reached 12,602 in 2015. Some reasons included financial failure, debt and other farming issues. Most of the people were farmers with less than two hectares of land.

    The author of the research noted that the study could not tell the difference between urban and rural people who took their own lives. That is because the crime records bureau only began separating the two categories in 1995.

    M. S. Swaminathan is a geneticist who is known for creating India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s. That was a movement to greatly increase agricultural productivity.

    He said, “Suicides occur due to extreme economic despair.”

    Swaminathan has carried out research suggesting that small temperature changes can hurt crop harvests.

    The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation works to solve farming problems related to climate change. Some of these include rising heat, drought and increasing salt levels in soil because of rising sea levels.

    Swaminathan said better crop insurance and quick compensation for crops lost to climate change “will help to avoid a sense of hopelessness that leads to suicide.”

    I’m Mario Ritter.

    And I’m Olivia Liu.

    Katy Daigle wrote this story for the Associated Press. Olivia Liu adapted this story with additional materials for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    droughtn. a severe lack of rain

    psychiatristn. a medical doctor that works in mental health

    negativelyadj. having a harmful effect

    miseryn. severe suffering

    irrigationn. systems to bring water to crops

    deliveryn. the act of bringing something

    compensationn. money given to make up for the loss of something

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