A conference of groups that say they represent poor Africans has convened in Mali, in an effort to provide a contrast to the activities of the G8 meeting in Japan.  The meeting's participants say their voice is more representative of the African continent.  Brent Latham has more from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Debate at the so-called People's Forum began in the city of Katibougou, 50 kilometers outside the Malian capital Bamako.   

The meeting, last held in 2005, aims to give a voice to Africa's poor, who organizers say are generally ignored by the G8, even though discussions in Japan actually centered on Africa's problems.  

This year's People's Forum has attracted more than 1,000 participants from around Africa, as well as observers from Europe and the United States, says observer Alexandre Foulon.

"The general idea, the People's Forum goal, is to elaborate on the proposed alternatives to the G8," he explained. "The organizers call it the 'Summit of the Poor.'  They are debating issues such as women's [roles], development in Africa, the food crisis, and cost of life."

Foulon says that participants include representatives of farmers, labor unions, migrant groups, and NGOs.  

The meeting takes place at a university where agricultural studies are taught.  Foulon says the agricultural crisis in West Africa has reduced enrollment there from a peak of 8,000 students several years ago, to just 400 today.  

Lasene Sedibe, director of the Mali-based Association of Organizations of Professional Farmers, says that while the conference will directly address issues like food prices and agriculture on the continent, the goal is also to send a message to the G8 leaders.

He says that rich countries have the right to speak about Africa in its absence, but that a big problem has been outsiders deciding what is good for the continent without the participation of Africans.  At the conference, he says, Africans have decided to figure out for themselves what is good for them.  

Sedibe says he hopes that G8 leaders will consider the points of view of organizations like his, which are seldom represented at the gatherings of rich countries.  

He says that those at the conference have a different vision of many things, including international and national governance, and humanitarian affairs.   For that reason, he says, they need another place to meet, where they have the right to make the decisions that affect their lives.  

Other farmers at the summit said they were feeling very discouraged.  They say the cotton they are producing is being sold for very little, as they try to compete against U.S. cotton growers who get subsidies from the U.S. government.

The "Summit of the Poor" will continue through Wednesday, concurrent to the meeting of the G8 leaders in Japan.  The Japanese hosts also invited the leaders of seven African countries to take part in the session regarding Africa.