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Africans Demand End of Subsidies for US Cotton Farmers - 2003-07-07

One major economic demand confronting U.S. President George W. Bush as he visits Africa this week will be lifting U.S. subsidies for American cotton farmers. In West Africa, cotton producers complain the subsidies are putting their livelihood at risk, because they give American farmers an unfair advantage.

President Bush will not be visiting the main cotton producing countries in West Africa - Burkina Faso, Mali and Benin - but he will be visiting nearby Senegal and Nigeria.

A primary topic during those visits will be improving U.S. economic ties with the region. President Bush has said he wants to focus on building two-way trade partnerships in Africa, rather than distributing aid.

The head of a cotton producers' association in Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Koulibaly, says Mr. Bush should start by working to end inequalities in the global cotton market.

Mr. Koulibaly said West African cotton producers face unfair competition from their competitors in the United States and Europe who are being heavily subsidized. He says the problem is becoming worse as worldwide cotton prices have reached historic lows in recent years.

The British-based relief organization, Oxfam, says cotton-producing countries in West Africa lose more money in export earnings because of the cotton subsidies than they get in total foreign aid.

An Oxfam activist who is based in Senegal, Sally Baden, is trying to help cotton producers fight against the subsidies. With world prices so low, she says the subsidies could destroy a vital industry.

"Cotton in west Africa is grown by very small farmers relying mostly on their families for labor," she said. "They receive very little support in terms of help from the government. They are often growing cotton in areas where there are relatively few alternatives to things they can grow.

"Although it is very hard work, producing cotton does contribute in a number of ways to stabilizing those families and even things you would not imagine like the bicycle industry in Burkina Faso," continued Ms. Baden. "It is heavily reliant on the incomes of cotton farmers who buy bicycles when they get their money from the cotton harvest, so both the direct effects on cotton farmers and the indirect effect on other areas of the economy make this a critical sector for poverty reduction in a region which has relatively few alternatives."

The U.S. government, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have been pushing governments in Africa to end their agricultural subsidies as part of efforts to liberalize their economies.

But the U.S. government has continued to support its farmers, which it has been doing since the 1930s. European producers have been heavily subsidized through European Union agricultural policies.

The head of the Washington-based International Cotton Advisory Committee, Terry Townsend, says competition between the United States and Europe often explains why Africa ends up as a victim of global trade.

"In general, it is the U.S. position that other countries, particularly [those in] Europe, subsidize agriculture so the United States is going to subsidize its agriculture," said Terry Townsend. "The U.S. is the largest exporter in cotton so the resentment against the United States among other cotton producing countries is particularly acute."

U.S. cotton farmers have production costs twice those of west-African producers, but American cotton farmers receive an average of $50,000 in subsidies each year and have garnered about 40 percent of the global market.

Last month, the president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, went to WTO headquarters in Geneva to ask for the total elimination of cotton subsidies when the next round of global trade talks is held in Mexico in September. Mr. Compaore said Africans do not want charity, but they do want equity.

His message opposing subsidies is expected to be taken up by others at an economic forum in Nigeria at the end of the week. Since President Bush is taking part in the forum, he is expected to hear the message loud and clear.