Trade row reality bites in Africa\'s cotton fields

Poor nations forced to sell stock cheaply to compete with U.S.

Trade row reality bites in Africa\'s cotton fields

Lefara Soro rests on a mound of rough cotton as the midday sun scorches his fields and says he knows nothing about the debate raging over subsidies paid by rich nations to his competitors half a world away.

He is not aware either of a meeting of the world's top trade officials in Hong Kong to try to bridge differences over a global trade pact, originally meant to help people like him. But he knows what he needs.

"I haven't heard anything about (the talks)," Soro, 33, said. "But I would like prices to rise. If we were paid more I could grow more cotton, and if I had a good season I would start a small shop and sell bicycle and moped parts and soap."

African cotton producers say subsidies paid by the United States to its farmers depress world prices. They want these subsidies scrapped but the United States has said rich nations can best respond to African concerns by agreeing on a global deal to open up agricultural markets and cut farm supports.

The cotton row, which helped scupper trade talks in Mexico in 2003, threatens to explode again at the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Hong Kong next week.

The WTO has already ruled U.S. cotton subsidies totalling some US$4 billion a year are illegal. African producers say these subsidies threaten the livelihoods of 10 to 15 million African farmers and their families - people like Soro.

He began working on his father's farm in northern Ivory Coast - in rebel hands since civil war broke out in 2002 - at the age of five, and now he is passing on the trade to his five children.

He says it is becoming harder to make a living from cotton but he has nothing else to offer as a trade. Last year's crop earned Soro a meagre 100,000 CFA (US$180) profit.

"I don't have money to send my children to school. The one who is old enough can't go because he looks after the bulls to transport the cotton. My uncle took his younger brother to work in his field. He works a full day but he's used to it," he said.

'White gold' loses sheen

Free trade campaigners say farmers like Soro - and thousands more in nearby Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Benin - are forced to sell their cotton cheaply to compete with large Western farms kept afloat by state subsidies.

Soro could benefit from higher prices if the WTO's Doha round of trade talks succeeds in persuading the United States, the world's largest cotton exporter, and other rich states to scrap these grants.

The EU, a major cotton importer, has offered to abolish all its most trade-distorting subsidies to the industry once a global trade deal is signed.

The high-level wrangling, the trade jargon and the political manoeuvring are a long way from Soro's six hectare farm outside the town of Korhogo in this former French colony.

Soro lives in a mud hut and speaks only the local Senoufo language. Confounded by the country's French newspapers and radio stations, he has little chance of grasping the details of the complex debate over cotton trade that will broadly determine the future he and his five children will have.

With the harvest under way, a young boy hauls a cotton-piled cart along the bumpy road to Waraniene village, where mention of the EU, the WTO and Hong Kong is met with bewilderment.

"No one talks to us about that. We don't know anything about it," said Kabeta Sekongo, 56, as he sat chatting with other villagers outside a small wooden cabin that serves as a shop.

War has complicated cotton farmers' lives here.

Sekongo said he used to make a reasonable living from what he called "white gold" but added that some Ivorian companies had not paid farmers in full for cotton sold since the war began.

Many cotton farmers are forced to trade thousands of tons a year on the black market in neighboring countries, at a large loss. Sekongo said he had switched to growing corn and rice.

A committee set up by rebel leaders to deal with the problem said farmers were owed 30 billion CFA francs (US$53.6 million).

"When we were getting paid for our cotton, you could at least afford to buy a bicycle or a motorbike and feed your family," said Sekongo.

In central Korhogo - a city famed before the war for a traditional fast-moving leopard dance and woven cloths - farmers' union staff were more informed about subsidies.

Vameike Meite, assistant director of the URESCO-CI union, is drumming up local support for an anti-subsidy petition for the Association of African Cotton Producers (APROCA), which plans to deliver the document to the Hong Kong meeting.

"We want to get 10 million signatures in Africa," he said, adding that farmers needed to be told what was at stake.

Meite said countries unable to grow cotton competitively without massive state aid should give up.

"We are in the era of globalization and specialization and we've seen films on Americans harvesting their cotton with big machines and irrigating their cotton which is very expensive," he said.

"The rules of competition dictate that if it's not competitive, it shouldn't be put on the market."

Updated : 2021-04-10 22:46 GMT+08:00