National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

Cotton is harvested in a field west of El Paso, Texas. African officials say subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers prevent African farmers from competing even in their own domestic markets.
-- UPI Photo/Jack Kurtz
In world trade, cotton fields aren't level

Global trade meeting fails African farmers

Catholic News Service
Cancún, Mexico

Things were looking up for the trade delegations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin and Chad as they arrived in Cancún for the fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Although the U.S. trade delegation of 650 outnumbered the trade delegations from Africa’s 40 countries, the West African ministers felt at least that public opinion was on their side.

To the ministers, the issue of 25,000 U.S. cotton farmers receiving subsidies that were destroying the livelihoods of more than 10 million in West Africa seemed an issue so stark and clear-cut that it could not be ignored.

Besides, the mid-September Cancún meeting was the second in the Doha Development Round, which had a stated aim of leveling the playing field for poor countries that are already at a trade disadvantage.

In the Doha Declaration, issued at the fourth ministerial conference in Qatar in 2001, member states of the World Trade Organization committed themselves to phasing out agricultural subsidies, recognized as responsible for stunting the agricultural markets of the Southern Hemisphere by flooding world markets with cheap agricultural products.

“The cotton our countries produce is among the most competitive. It ranks among the best in the world in terms of quality, and its production costs are well below those of other producing countries,” said Choguel Kokalla Maiga, Mali’s minister of Industry and Commerce, in an address to the plenary session of the Cancún talks.

“If it were priced at its proper worth, our cotton would generate considerable income, enough to secure social well-being for millions of men, women and children, allowing them to eat their fill, receive proper care and go to school,” Maiga said.

“These countries are not calling for special treatment,” World Trade Organization Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi told the plenary session at the trade talks. “They are asking for a market rules-based solution. I urge ministers to consider their proposal very seriously.”

Malian cotton farmers spend less per acre for a greater yield in cotton than the average Texas cotton farmer, but the $3 billion in subsidies that U.S. farmers receive annually enables them to flood world markets with inexpensive cotton. African officials say this distorts world trade and prevents West African farmers from competing even in their own domestic markets.

The Africans’ hopes were encouraged by the formation of a special working group to consider the Sectoral Initiative on Cotton, which proposed the elimination of all subsidies on cotton production and export.

Msgr. Frank Dewane, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, stressed the Holy See’s support of the African cotton initiative. The Vatican, he said, “wishes to associate itself with those who support consideration for the particular needs of the African continent to experience the development that trade can provide.”

Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin and Chad also had the support of a number of other African countries as well as Canada, Australia, Argentina, India and Bangladesh.

Opposition to such an initiative had been building in the southern United States before the Cancún meeting. Senators from U.S. cotton-producing states urged the Bush administration not to give in to the African nations’ demands. In Cancún, U.S. trade representatives argued that trade subsidies are not solely responsible for problems in the West African cotton industry and proposed a sectoral initiative to address distortions in the cotton and man-made fiber markets.

However, development specialists in Cancún said this was obscuring the issue of the devastating impact of U.S. subsidies. The West African countries argued that cotton is all they have, but said U.S. farmers have the option of farming other crops.

The U.S. proposal on cotton was reflected in a draft ministerial text published Sept. 13, some 24 hours before talks ended. The text proposed to “review” the question of subsidies and “redirect existing resources” in the West African countries toward diversification.

“The mountain has not given birth to a mouse, it has given birth to an ant,” said one representative of the Burkina Faso cotton industry. “We are used to hardship, famine and disease. Now the World Trade Organization is against us as well.”

This draft text was the basis of negotiations over the next 24 hours until talks broke down. While most analysts attribute the breakdown to a failure to reach consensus on the Singapore Issues -- four new issues of investment, trade facilitation, competition policy and government procurement that the European Union wanted to see on the agenda -- it was clear that cotton subsidies had an impact.

The International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity, a coalition of Catholic international development agencies known by its French acronym CIDSE, said in a statement that “a better deal for the African cotton farmers may have changed the course of the Cancún negotiations.”

“A satisfactory deal on cotton may have appeased the Africans’ sense of outrage that the European Union and the United States sought to exploit and humiliate them,” the coalition said.

African nongovernmental organizations present in Cancún, while decrying the disappointing outcome, said that the one positive aspect was that for the first time developing countries stood together to refuse to take on an agenda that otherwise might have been imposed upon them by the countries of the North, and this newfound unity was impressive.

Mary Durran attended the World Trade Organization’s fifth ministerial conference as part of the delegation from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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