- The head of a delegation from the main cotton buying company in Burkina Faso, Sofitex, recently met with some 200 local farmers under a mango tree in western Burkina Faso to explain to them that they should expect to get 150 CFA (US$ 0.30) a kilo for their next harvest, or 9 percent less than they got for the previous year.
But as he started to talk the farmers interrupted him. "Excuse me," said one of them, "but if what you are telling us is true, then we are all going to stop growing cotton."
The other farmers stood up to applaud, drowning out the Sofitex representative as he tried to get the farmers to understand that there is nothing he could do about world cotton prices. "The price is determined by external market trends and those trends today clearly show a durable tendency for lower price," Jonas Bayoulou of Sofitex said.
But these and other cotton farmers are not in a mood to listen, as their fertile soil may provide other riches. The price of cotton has fallen every year since 2003, when it was 210 CFA (around US$ 0.42). The industry, which counts for 60 percent of Burkina Faso's cash exports, provides more than a quarter of the 13 million people in one of the world's least developed countries, with some income.
"Where are we going to send all these people [that are soon to be unemployed]? He is talking about the youth and cotton farmers as well," said Célestin Tiendrebeogo, the manager of Sofitex in Burkina Faso's cotton capital Bobodioulasso, adding that the consequences of lower production is likely to have a ripple effect on other industries and the economy as a whole.
Cotton-buying companies in the region are themselves struggling to survive. Sofitex's expenses were around 40 billion CFA (US$ 80.45 million) more than its income over the last two years, Mr Tiendrebeogo said.
He expects things to get worse. With more farmers giving up cotton, Burkina Faso's production is likely to drop next year by more than 12 percent to less 700,000 tonnes. "Our Tsunami has come and we now need help from the international community", Francois Traoré, the president of the Union Nationale des Producteurs de Coton du Burkina told the UN media 'IRIN'.
The consensus among non-governmental organisations and African leaders has been that the cause of the low cotton prices has been the United States, which has heavily subsidised 25,000 of its cotton farmers. According to Oxfam, Washington paid US$ 4.2 billion in subsidies in 2004-05 while sub-Saharan lost around US$ 400 million a year in revenue, money that would have benefited some 10 million poor people in the region.
In October, the president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, told US farmers and congressmen in a videoconference organised by the World Bank that cotton was essential to alleviating poverty in his country as well as Benin, Mali, Niger and Chad. "But our economies have been reformed so that there are no forms of subsidies for farmers," he said. "While alas, certain [Western] countries have chosen to flout the rules of the market." Meanwhile indeed, US-influenced institutions like the World Bank have obliged Sahelian countries to forget about farm subsidies.
Along with ending subsidies in the US and Europe, West African governments are asking western countries to provide an emergency fund to compensate for depressed cotton prices and technical and financial assistance for Africa's cotton sector. Benin's president Boni Yayi in December personally asked US President George Bush to help during a meeting in the White House.
The US government said is not will consider ending subsidies to its cotton farmers separately from an overall World Trade Organisation (WTO) deal on agriculture - where the Americans expect more favourable conditions on the huge European market. However, Washington may consider increasing aid to boost the productivity of African cotton farmers and improve their ability to trade. West Africans however don't want aid, but fair trade conditions - as a matter of honour.
Some western experts claim the cotton industry in sub-Saharan Africa would still face problems even if the West were to stop subsidising its farmers. For one thing, the low value of the US dollar, compared to the CFA, could still make US exports more competitive.
One good thing about low cotton prices, Bachir Diop, president of the Dakar-based Association des Cotonculteurs Africains (ACA) told 'IRIN', is that it is forcing farmers to become more efficient. No place has this been more noted than in non-subsidised West Africa.
Burkina Faso's government research institute INERA (Institut National de l'environnement et de recherches agricoles) has produced genetically modified cotton seeds which it says yield up to 3,000 kg of cotton per hectare, instead of the current average of only 1000 to 1500 kg. The Ouagadougou government said it plans to distribute these seeds to farmers in 2007.
Efforts are also underway to turn West African cotton seeds into cooking oil as well as fuel for local consumption. "Such endeavours would mitigate the impact [of low international prices] and our dependence on them" Mr Diop said.
The West African Development Bank (BOAD) has also been supporting efforts to increase the manufacture of local textiles. Currently 95 percent of the cotton is exported - mostly to China - as raw material. Almost nothing is processed in Africa, where cheap labour could spur a new industrial revolution, as a minority of analysts hold.
However, Mr Diop said that sub-Saharan countries may find it hard to compete international because of their high energy costs and because the WTO ended world quotas on textile in 2005, which has allowed China to start flooding world markets. Most analysts hold that China will remain dominant on the textile market for many years to come.
Meanwhile, many Burkina Faso farmers have tried to grow cereals such as corn, millet and soybeans, instead of cotton but despite of very fertile grounds, cereal prices are even more volatile. This year a 100 kg bag of maize cost just 3,000 CFA (US$ 6.03) compared to two years ago when the price was a high as 25,000 CFA (US$ 50.28). In addition, cereals are more volatile to the periodic droughts that hit Burkinabe agriculture.
Cotton may therefore still be farmers' best hope, especially if the government gets it it way during the WTO negotiations. "We cannot replace it," said farmer François Sirima. "It's the only reliable way we know to get cash." The question is how to make a worthwhile amount of cash.
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