”We are slaves,” says Tahere Niampa, with a fleck of cotton balancing on his lip. “The price of cotton is too low. We don’t know what to do.”
Niampa, 65, has been farming cotton in Burkina Faso, West Africa, since he was a boy. Last year he made the equivalent of roughly US$700, enough to feed his family for only a few months once loans for costly farming inputs such as seeds, insecticide and fertiliser were deducted.
“It’s exhausting,” says Niampa. “We work for nothing.”
Unlike several nearby countries, Burkina Faso has no oil, diamonds or uranium, and hardly enough gold for a wedding ring. Burkina’s own resource curse is that about the only thing that grows in its arid soil is cotton. The world price slump, largely brought about by US farming subsidies, means that “white gold” now flatters to deceive.
Cotton keeps 3.5 million people in business in Burkina Faso, Africa’s largest producer. With a record-breaking harvest this year of 700,000 metric tonnes, the white stuff contributes 30 per cent of GDP and 70 per cent of export earnings.
In the United States, the world’s second-largest producer of cotton after China, 28,000 people grow the crop. Last year, these farmers received $4.2bn in subsidies, more than the entire GDP of Burkina Faso. At the same time, its cotton industry lost an estimated $250m due to market distortions brought about by subsidies and tariffs. Burkina Faso remains the world’s third-poorest country.
The Doha round of trade talks, in mo-tion since 2001, was supposed to change all this. The Hong Kong meeting of the 148-member World Trade Organisation, beginning on 13 December, aims to give a leg-up to the little guys by providing preferential treatment on access to markets, cutting export subsidies entirely and much reducing domestic subsidies. Yet hopes of progress have evaporated quicker than Burkina Faso’s fleeting summer rains.
Cotton – an employer of more than ten million people in West Africa and produced in 33 countries continent-wide – has become a political football lobbed back and forth across the Atlantic. The US wants the EU to open its market; the EU wants the US to slash cotton subsidies. It is a cagey game, with both sides claiming to be playing in African colours.
On a visit to Burkina Faso last month to build a developing world coalition around US-led proposals on trade reform, the US agriculture secretary, Michael Johanns, painted Europe as the villain, saying the EU had to “step up”on its market access proposals, and that it “holds the key”. But while Europe’s deeply protectionist agriculture policies make it a bete noire for many, on the issue of cotton its rap sheet pales in comparison with the US.
Despite a WTO panel ruling last year in a case brought by Brazil and supported by the cotton-producing countries of West Africa, that US cotton export subsidies are illegal, reform has floundered in Congress, which recently voted to keep huge domestic subsidies in place. The current US proposal would cut farm import tariffs by 55 to 90 per cent and domestic subsidies by 60 per cent, but with no guarantees for the cotton sector specifically. Francois Traore, the president of Burkina Faso’s cotton producers’ association, has said that the issue is no longer one of trade justice but of human rights.
In the countdown to Hong Kong, one worrying aspect of the developed world’s approach to trade justice is the appearance of a familiar old carrot. In the same week as the high-profile American visit to discuss cotton, Burkina Faso “qualified” for the Millennium Challenge Account, the US flagship aid programme that is offering hundreds of millions of dollars for aid rather than trade.
“You have to be careful of the US,” cautioned one western diplomat. “The US always arrives with a suitcase full of cash when it wants to broker a trade deal.”
Amid all the downgrading of expectations, Burkina remains serious about these talks. Its delegation to the WTO will comprise the recently re-elected president, Blaise Compaore, in the first major foreign engagement of his third term, as well as agriculture and trade ministers, representatives of the cotton industry and farmers like Niampa. To make his point, Celestin Tiendrebeogo, director general of Sofitex, the former state enterprise responsible for much of the sector, will turn up in a luxuriant boubou made of the finest Burkinabe cotton. “I’ll be wearing my battle clothes,” he says. “I’m dressing for war.”