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July 08, 2008

African cotton farmers work harder for less pay

François Tani -- a cotton grower in Koumbia, western Burkina Faso -- has cleared extra land this year for cultivation, bringing the total number of hectares he is farming to 28. But, he's under no illusion that a larger harvest will bring him more money.

Instead, the hope is that it will simply keep him from earning a lot less. While Burkinabé cotton farmers sold their raw cotton for 42 cents a kilogramme two years ago, they earned 35 cents per kilo in 2005. This year, the price has fallen still further, to 33 cents.

"Last year, I obtained 47 tonnes (of cotton); but in spite of (harvesting) 50 tonnes this year, I will earn less," Tani said. With up to six million Burkinabé depending on the cotton trade in one way or another, this steady depletion of income has grave consequences for the country -- as well as for other producers in the West African region.

While farmers in Mali have obtained about 34 cents for a kilogramme of cotton this year, those in Chad, Benin and C- te d'Ivoire received a little less than 33 cents. In all, some 20 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live off cotton.

Much of the blame for this state of affairs is laid at the door of the United States, which stands accused of driving down prices through the subsidies it provides to its 25,000 cotton farmers.

"Cotton production is not profitable for the Americans. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund would have already stopped such production in African countries if it was the same case (there)," said François Traoré, president of the African Association of Cotton Producers. "But they (the Americans) are strong and rich, and can therefore continue to produce cotton."

Some had hoped that World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks conducted under the auspices of the Doha Development Agenda would bring a respite. The Doha round, named after the Qatari capital where it was launched in 2001, is aimed at giving developing nations a proper share of international trade -- in part by cutting agricultural subsidies.

However, the collapse of negotiations last month in the Swiss city of Geneva means that farmers like Tani face a bleak future. The Doha round has now been suspended indefinitely.

Matters could become even worse when the U.S. Farm Bill is revised in 2007. Subsidies are determined by this bill, which comes up for discussion every five years. Reports indicate that in the absence of new WTO subsidy agreements which would need to be incorporated in the bill -- and with Congressional and presidential elections looming in November and 2008 respectively -- legislators will be in no frame of mind to move ahead with cuts that could undermine voter support.

A more positive note was struck earlier this year, when the WTO Appellate Body upheld an earlier ruling by the organisation that certain U.S. cotton subsidies were illegal in terms of WTO agreements already in place. The ruling followed a complaint by Brazil, in 2005.

The U.S. House of Representatives has responded by voting in favour of a progressive elimination of subsidies representing about 10 percent of those paid annually to American cotton farmers, starting this month.

But the effects of existing market distortion will be hard to erase. According to global aid agency Oxfam, American cotton farmers have received about a billion dollars in assistance between 2004 and 2005 -- while producers in sub-Saharan Africa lost 450 million dollars.

Ultimately, decreasing cotton revenues may also affect the quality of crops produced in Africa.

Although Burkina Faso's government has kept the price of 50 kilogrammes of chemical fertilizer at about 25 dollars, this is still beyond the reach of certain farmers -- who are now using two sacks of fertilizer for a hectare of land instead of the four normally required. Others have resorted to organic fertilizers.

And, changing crops seems to hold out little hope of improvement.

"We cannot find something else to replace the cotton, or else we would have done so. We have tried sesame, cereals -- it didn't work...As many have turned to cereals, the price of these products have fallen as well," said Lamoussa Ouattara, a cotton farmer from the province of Leraba in western Burkina Faso.

"I do not know how long we can hold on for, if nothing changes."


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