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Zimbabwean Cotton Farmers Say Subsidies Damage Small-Scale Producers

Zimbabwean cotton farmers say the developed nations' refusal to end cotton subsidies is killing the small-scale African producer. The Zimbabweans' plight illustrates the effect of rich-nation subsidies on underdeveloped countries.

Elizabeth Paradza traveled halfway across the globe, from her dusty village in Central Zimbabwe to the concrete jungles of Hong Kong, to deliver a message to the United States and other developed nations. She wants them to know that the subsidies they pay their cotton industries is plunging her and other African cotton farmers into poverty.

Mrs. Paradza says the arid climate allows her to grow only cotton on her 15-hectare farm. But cotton fetches only some fifty cents a kilogram on the world market, and she says it is a struggle to survive.

"We are suffering, we cannot send our children to school. Life is very, very hard. We cannot afford to buy food with these prices of cotton. Please, if they want human beings in Africa to survive, cease these subsidies, or else they are killing us," she appealed.

Mrs. Paradza's story is a specific example of the message thousands of protesters and activists are trying to deliver this week as the World Trade Organization debates and negotiates over proposed trade liberalization.

The WTO says liberalization will help all countries. The protesters say the policies of the developed nations, most particularly agricultural subsidies, distort world prices and harm individuals in the undeveloped countries.

Cotton is Zimbabwe's top export, going mainly to China and earning the impoverished nation about $150 million a year. Small-scale farmers like Mrs. Paradza produce much of the crop.

But Zimbabwe has its own problems. The authoritarian polices of President Robert Mugabe have placed the country at odds with the United States and European countries. The economy is in a shambles, with high unemployment, inflation and food shortages. People like Mrs. Paradza suffer the consequences.

"Our government is poor. They cannot subsidize us. It is worsening our situation because it seems like everybody is closing the doors on us," she added.

Ntando Ndlovu is program coordinator of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, an organization that advises cotton farmers on trade issues. She spells out the economics that people like Mrs. Paradza have to deal with.

"In terms of their income, after selling maybe five bales of cotton the most they can hope to get $200, and that's an annual income," explained Ms. Ndlovu. "And it will be by and large offset by the cost, because in cotton production you need to buy pesticides, so at the end of the day their net profit would be less than $20 for a season."

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman says slashing subsidies is not the sole answer to Africa's cotton problem. He says Africa needs to raise its production efficiency if it wants to be competitive.

"I am concerned that somehow we are saying the problem is all the subsidies, but the problem is much bigger," he noted. "Example: the yields in Africa are one half the yields of the rest of the world for cotton."

The United States has been giving $7 million worth of aid to West African cotton growers to increase efficiency. On Thursday, Mr. Portman told the WTO conference that the United States had decided to allow duty-free access to West African cotton.

But Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa, will not be among the beneficiaries of this new policy.