In West Africa, U.S. policy is keeping cotten prices down, povety alive

BARTHOLOMEW SULLIVAN – Scripps Howard News Service

December 13, 2005
Copyright Scripps Howard News Service
If all goes well, Dofougo Bognini will make about $935 growing cotton this year.
The 35-year-old farmer is out on his own for the first time, after years farming with his older brothers. On this day, he casts urea fertilizer by hand gently beneath each cotton plant while his wife, Ami, thins out the weakest seedlings, a sleeping baby tied loosely on her back. They farm roughly 7.4 acres. If he had more land, Bognini said in his native Bambara dialect, he’d probably need oxen.
Like almost all cotton in West Africa, the seed in these fields was planted by hand. The plants will be sprayed for insects by barefoot boys with backpack tanks and goggles. The fields will be weeded with short-handled hoes called tabas. And eventually the cotton will be harvested by hand, without the use of defoliants.
This is the way cotton was produced in America before mechanization drove sharecroppers to the cities.
Today, some of the differences between American and African cotton farming are obvious: barefoot boys with oxen, compared with air-conditioned 16-row pickers. Others are more subtle: African farmers claim with some justification that handpicked cotton is freer of the debris of leaves and stems American farmers call “trash,” and is in that sense of better quality.
But in one respect, cotton farming in both places is the same. As Stephen Yafa says in his book Big Cotton: “When prosperity and calamity are never more than a heartbeat away, you know you’re in cotton country.”
The calamity for West African cotton farmers is the grinding poverty they see resulting from unfair and trade-distorting U.S. cotton subsidies. The calamity for American cotton farmers is what would happen if those subsidies went away. The collision of those two forces, and other global cotton issues, is on the agenda of trade ministers from around the world meeting in Hong Kong this week. Four African countries derailed similar talks in Cancun, Mexico, two years ago. The divisive issue was the same: Cotton subsidies.
In this part of French-speaking West Africa, they call cotton “l’or blanc” (white gold). It’s by far the most important export commodity and largely sustains the entire region’s wider economy. In Burkina Faso, which expects to surpass Mali to become sub-Saharan Africa’s largest cotton producer this year, cotton represents 50 percent of the value of all exports. If the price of cotton on the world market increases, that increase can be passed along to farmers, and the fate of millions in small villages will improve.
One way to raise the world price of cotton, government trade and agriculture officials here say, is for the United States to end subsidies paid to American cotton farmers and traders. They say the subsidies only disguise the fact that America can’t grow cotton nearly as cost effectively as Africa can, and that’s indisputable.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 22,000 American cotton farmers will receive government payments totaling $4.281 billion this year. According to a recent report by the United Nations, that subsidy is “equivalent to the market value of the crop and more than U.S. aid to sub-Saharan Africa.”
The subsidies, say African officials such as Burkina Faso’s Minister of Commerce, Benoit Ouattara, have the effect of creating overproduction that suppresses the world market price, keeping the price for cotton grown by African farmers low and extending their crushing poverty.
“It is impossible for us to understand,” he said.
In Benin, the fall of cotton prices in 2001-2002 resulted in an increase in poverty from 37 percent to 59 percent of the population, according to the UN.
Farmers here say that if the United States supports free trade, it should let African cotton compete against an American crop not shielded from the vicissitudes of market pricing. And since 2003, when the Cancun trade talks stalled over the issue of cotton subsidies, their plight is being taken seriously.
In an interview in his office in Bobo Dioulasso, Celestine T. Tiendrebeogo, the director general of Sofitex, the largest of the partly privatized cotton companies in Burkina Faso, used a Biblical metaphor to describe the African strategy.
African cotton countries are like the widow who kept demanding justice from the pitiless magistrate in the Gospel of Luke, he said. The judge, like the United States, couldn’t be moved by compassion, but finally relented, exhausted by her relentless pestering. He said Africans can’t count on compassion either, despite their just cause, but will use a policy – he used a French term, “emmerdant,” meaning annoying – to bring an end to the subsidies.
Since the Geneva-based World Trade Organization declared that some U.S. cotton policies are trade-distorting last year and again this spring, the process of dismantling them has begun. Certain export marketing guarantees were suspended by the USDA this summer, and Congress has been asked to do more trimming before the end of the year. But many in Africa are skeptical.
“The U.S. government has acknowledged the wrong it has caused our farmers with the subsidies,” Burkina Faso’s Agriculture Minister Salif Diallo said. He said he’s hopeful substantive changes are afoot, but couched his conviction that an end to subsidies is inevitable in moralistic terms.
Of course, not all of the cause for falling world cotton prices can be attributed to American subsidy payments. China is a huge producer and consumer of cotton and can affect the world price. The falling value of the dollar hurts, too, because the world price is set in dollars; some African leaders said it should be priced in euros. And cotton subsidies for European farmers are exceptionally high, with no imminent change expected. But because the United States is the largest cotton exporter, its effect on the world market is profound.
Third World African agriculture is a world away from the modern techniques used by cotton farmers in the Mid-South. In Benin, they’ve decided not to use genetically modified cotton seed designed to protect against boll worms or withstand chemical herbicides before 2007, said Pascal Houssou, sub-director of Benin’s ministry of external trade. Part of the reason is that farmers are growing traditional subsistence food crops, like cassava, corn and ground nuts, in adjacent fields. Burkina Faso allowed Monsanto to set up test plots in 2003, but genetically modified cotton is not yet grown by farmers commercially, as it is elsewhere in Africa.
In the dusty, diesel-smoke-laden Burkina capital of Ouagadougou, Francois Traore, president of the 60,000-member Union Nationale des Producteurs de Coton, is arguably one of the most powerful men in the country; the union has an ownership stake in private cotton companies.
Traore, 53, who looks out for 325,000 cotton farming households, deplores the multinational corporate interests that hold down the price of cotton his people depend on to live.
In an interview, Traore talked about the culture of the Sahel, the desert region that gets just enough rain to produce cotton. He said hand-harvesting produces a “beautiful” fiber that mechanical pickers can’t copy. And he said fairness demands that the hard work done by farmers sweating over their small plots should be rewarded with a fair price.
Comparing the interests of labor and capital, he said African slaves produced much American capital, and it’s time for more of it to be invested in African development.
“We have nothing against the United States,” he said in French. “We have no weapons against the United States. We are not terrorists. We just want to live.”
Even without translation, his description of American cotton policy is unmistakable: A “catastrophe.” The entire Burkina economy has been destabilized by the lower prices for cotton. The result is that some are leaving the sector, contributing to the government’s fiscal problems. Ending the foreign subsidies would be “the most humane” thing to do, he says.
Over the past decade, the once state-owned cotton industries of both countries have been turned over to quasi-private companies. It seems fairly obvious that the privatization of the cotton sector wouldn’t have come at all if left to the left-leaning governments of both countries. But both countries are dependent on donor aid and have been required to adjust the structure of their economies to repay debts. The process of privatization is hugely unpopular and has led to riots and boycotts.
According to Jocelyn N. Nenehidini, the official national spokesman for Sonapra, largest entity in Benin’s cotton sector, farmers threatened to burn last year’s crop and refused to plant in 2005 until the government agreed in January to raise the amount it was willing to pay farmers.
Tiendrebeogo said that when the African countries insisted on being heard on the issue of subsidies in Cancun, no one was ready to give in. But when the press in Europe and organizations critical of American agriculture policy looked at cotton subsidies in depth, people began to see, he said, that the payments were a “veritable gachis,” a true waste.
“When we raised the issue, the taxpayers in America realized that they were giving $4 billion to only 25,000 individuals; they realized this was a distorted use of public funds,” he said. “Beyond the imbalance, the cause at the domestic level – this wealth distribution – is a source of robust debate that may embarrass the (U.S.) government.”
(Contact Bartholomew Sullivan of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at

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