First Person

A decision for cotton farmers

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Cotton famers load a truck in Sibirila, Mali. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America
Cotton famers load a truck in Sibirila, Mali. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

The first time I went to Mali, about five years ago, I met with a group of cotton farmers just a few hours east of Bamako. It was near the harvest time, and you could see the white dots on the scrubby little plants all over the countryside, but there was not much optimism among the farmers in the cooperative I visited that day. Most of them reported that they work all year, sell their cotton to the government agency that exports all the cotton grown in Mali, and after they pay back their loans they don’t usually walk away with enough to make it worth the effort. Some years they would get just about $100. A relatively good year was $200 or $400.
Farmers in Mali told me they only grow cotton because they know their government will buy it from them for cash, which they need for health care, school fees, and other expenses. They can also get fertilizer from the government on credit — if they use it to grow cotton.
Cotton farmers everywhere share a common problem: the price they get for their crop is too low. So it is particularly perverse that what we do here in the US has made the struggle of West African cotton farmers even more difficult. The problem is that we encourage American farmers to grow cotton no matter what the market conditions by paying them subsidies. American cotton gets dumped on the world market, which leads to a drop in price for everyone. Farmers in poor countries, who grow cotton more efficiently, can’t make enough to survive.
African countries lost more due to the low price of cotton than they got in aid. This cotton situation is an example of the ways the world trade system is rigged in favor of rich countries. And recent attempts to fix this have failed.
Cotton producers in Brazil were also being hurt by US subsidies, so Brazil complained to the World Trade Organization, which ruled in 2004 that US subsidies and other payments were illegal. In 2005, the WTO upheld this decision after the US appealed, but the money kept flowing to cotton farmers in the US: over $3 billion in 2008-2009. Again, just a few days ago, the WTO ruled that the US has not done enough to deal with the problem, and that Brazil is now allowed to retaliate.
In 2007 Oxfam released a report on that estimated what would happen if the US would end its cotton subsidies: Cotton prices would go up, which would translate into increased incomes for millions of families in West Africa. The extra money could feed a million West African children for a year, or pay school fees for at least two million children. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+