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September 14, 2008

African cotton growers' fight against western subsidies to continue

Burkina Faso Commerce Minister Mamadou Sanou is still smouldering more than a month after world trade negotiators ignored his pleas to debate the salvation of west Africa's critical but foundering cotton sector.

"We are fighting for the future of African cotton," he said. "African cotton is not going to die like that, just because the big powers have decided that it should."

Sanou said that in Geneva in late July, where trade chiefs had gathered to forge a new multilateral deal eliminating barriers to global commerce, "we asked, right from the first day, that cotton be given priority treatment because we were afraid of being trapped if the issue were discussed at the last minute. Unfortunately, cotton was not discussed at the last minute - it wasn't discussed at all."

Burkina Faso and fellow west African producers Benin, Mali and Chad have long been demanding a cut in generous government subsidies provided cotton growers in the United States and other industrialised states that they say undercut their ability to compete on world markets and depress prices.

They had hoped for action in the Doha round of talks, held under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation and designed to launch a fresh global free-trade mechanism.

Inaugurated seven years ago in the Qatari capital, the Doha negotiations have produced little tangible headway and July's bid to spur momentum ended in failure for all parties.

But for Sanou, who coordinates negotiating strategy for the west African group, the breakdown in Geneva was especially galling.

"The big powers spent their time squabbling among themselves and their interests were at levels other than that of cotton. It was a divergence of interests between the United States, China and India that put us in that situation."

Sanou was adamant in asserting that what he and his colleagues are seeking is hardly charity.

"When we ask that cotton subsidies be lifted we are not begging for anything. We are acting within our rights. We are asking that the rules of the international trading system be applied, that basic WTO principles be applied. For us the question is fundamental."

The minister added that he and his west African counterparts were still determined to raise cotton's profile in the Doha talks. "Even if negotiations on other WTO questions go nowhere, cotton can at least be considered, given its particular importance."

Seydou Ouedraogo, former head of Burkina Faso's national cotton growers' union, took particular aim at the United States in a separate interview.

"I've been to the United States three times to discuss the subsidy problem with members of Congress and other influential people. We're not looking for favors or help ... We just want them to stop the subsidies to allow us to sell our cotton at a fair price."

Prices for west African cotton have been steadily declining as producers struggle to stay afloat against competitors from the industrialised world.

In Burkina Faso, where cotton is the principal export, prices have gone from 210 CFA francs (32 eurocents) a kilogram in 2003 to 145 in 2008. In 2009 industry sources foresee an uptick to 165 CFA francs per kilo.

Throughout the country cotton growers have begun to diversify their crops, turning increasingly to corn, sesame, peanuts, sweet potatoes and green beans in order to stay in business.

"Cotton used to be my only activity," said Abdou Nignan, a grower near Leo in Sissili province in central Burkina Faso.

"But I have had to add corn because all the money from cotton goes to food. Last year our cotton sold at 145 CFA francs a kilo. Do you know how much it costs to grow a hectare of cotton? 130,000 CFA francs. I sold 4.5 tonnes. You can do the math."

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