Monday, March 23, 2009

West African Cotton:
Stephen's Request

I mentioned before that my work is ramping up in intensity, even if I have to wait to get to West Africa to enjoy all of it. Take last week for instance. The Team Leader for CRWRC West Africa, Mary Crickmore, asked me to write a short article for other team members that they could send to their North American constituents. She asked me to write about the international justice issues surrounding US cotton subsidies. Well, I didn’t know anything about the international justice issues surrounding US cotton subsidies. They don't grow cotton in Liberia, and I don’t subscribe to The Fabric of Our Lives magazine. So I did some homework.

I discovered that US cotton subsidies are a huge justice issue in West Africa—and even in the US. It seems that they benefit the few-- primarily large corporate farms and their wealthy owners-- at the expense of growers everywhere. The top 10% of US cotton-subsidy recipients receive almost 80% of the money (over $3 billion a year), leaving most US cotton growers out of the equation. And that lopsided US equation has a devistating impact in West Africa. For American cotton farmers (whose average net worth is
about $800,000) the subsidies could be the difference between growing cotton and growing something else, or between farming and pursuing a different line of work, if they can't compete without taxpayer support. For African farmers who earn something like $800 a year, the subsidies can be the difference between eating and starving.
So I wrote the article, which Mary read and shortened. What follows is our joint effort.
Stephen Traore is a cotton farmer in the Fana district of Mali. He works hard to feed his family of 15 children and grandchildren. He also takes the time to time serve as a lay leader in his local Evangelical congregation and the local district of over 23 churches. When CRWRC staff visited Stephen’s farm, he asked us to translate and transmit this message to the church in the US:

“I greet American people, I thank American people. I am very happy that you are asking about our difficulties in Africa. You can help us improve the price of cotton, so that we and the American people can be neighbors, so that we can send our children to school. Today, there are many difficulties in Africa, because of the low price of cotton, especially in my village. It’s been two years and now and we still have not gotten the money we are supposed to get for the cotton. We are very happy for your visit. Please take our message to your people in America. That is all. In the name of God, we thank you.”

Stephen (in blue) and Paul Traore in their cotton field.

Let us explain why Stephen is concerned. He and all the hard working farmers like him in the cotton growing areas of Mali are negatively affected by globalization,and in particular US farm policy. They grow grain which they eat, plus cotton to sell for cash so they can buy fish, meat and vegetables, clothing and shoes, and pay school fees. The depressed price of cotton means their families are hungrier, and provisions are scarcer.

This is how US policy has impact across the ocean: the US government pays US corporate cotton growers for their cotton regardless of the demand. Ostensibly, these subsidies exist to protect American farmers from competitive markets, but in reality subsidies encourage growers to grow as much cotton as possible, much more than the US market can use. The surplus cotton gets dumped onto world markets, which drive prices down everywhere—including West Africa.

As he showed CRWRC staff his farm, Stephen said, “Yes, I have heard of the politics of cotton in Mali, Burkina Faso, China, and USA. The village was told by the company that buys the cotton to only have small or medium cotton fields since the price is low and not all may be bought. In the past I have had 12 or more acres of cotton planted but am down to 9 acres this year. Others have also reduced or have stopped growing cotton altogether.” We asked, “If the cotton prices were better, what would be the first thing that you would do or buy?” Stephen’s answer was immediate and simple. “Food. Meat.”

Both Democrat and Republicans leaders have supported ending cotton subsidies, and President Obama’s proposed budget sets new limits on direct payments to cotton producers. But the National Cotton Council of America (NCC) is lobbying hard to maintain the subsidies. The NCC succeeded in getting cotton subsidies restored in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. The time could not be better for you to act and make a difference. Write or email your US Senate and House Representatives and tell them you support the limits on payments to cotton producers. Encourage them to push for legislation that is fair for everyone. Our tax support of American agro-business should not do harm to Africans struggling to feed their families.

Stephen and a few of the family members whose lives depend upon fair cotton trade.