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US Cotton Subsidies are Strangling Africa

Your Farm Subsidies Are Strangling Us
By AMADOU TOUMANI TOURÉ and BLAISE COMPAORÉ
New York Times Op Ed
July 11th, 2003

After too many years of Africa's being pushed to the global background, it's
heartening to see the world's attention being focused on our continent.
International support — both financial and otherwise — is certainly needed to
help combat the severe poverty and disease gripping our nations. But first and
foremost, Africa needs to be allowed to take its destiny into its own hands.
Only self-reliance and economic growth and development will allow Africa to
become a full member of the world community.

With the creation of the New Economic Partnership for African Development in
2001, African leaders have committed themselves to following the principles of
good governance and a market economy. Nothing is more central to this goal than
participating in world trade. As the presidents of two of Africa's least
developed countries — Burkina Faso and Mali — we are eager to participate in
the multilateral trading system and to take on its rights and obligations.

Cotton is our ticket into the world market. Its production is crucial to
economic development in West and Central Africa, as well as to the livelihoods
of millions of people there. Cotton accounts for up to 40 percent of export
revenues and 10 percent of gross domestic product in our two countries, as well
as in Benin and Chad. More than that, cotton is of paramount importance to the
social infrastructure of Africa, as well as to the maintenance of its rural
areas.

This vital economic sector in our countries is seriously threatened by
agricultural subsidies granted by rich countries to their cotton producers.
According to the International Cotton Advisory Committee, cotton subsidies
amounted to about $5.8 billion in the production year of 2001 to 2002, nearly
equal the amount of cotton trade for this same period. Such subsidies lead to
worldwide overproduction and distort cotton prices, depriving poor African
countries of their only comparative advantage in international trade.

Not only is cotton crucial to our economies, it is the sole agricultural
product for our countries to trade. Although African cotton is of the highest
quality, our production costs are about 50 percent lower than in developed
countries even though we rely on manual labor. In wealthier countries, by
contrast, lower-quality cotton is produced on large mechanized farms,
generating little employment and having a questionable impact on the
environment. Cotton there could be replaced by other, more valuable crops.

In the period from 2001 to 2002, America's 25,000 cotton farmers received more
in subsidies — some $3 billion — than the entire economic output of Burkina
Faso, where two million people depend on cotton. Further, United States
subsidies are concentrated on just 10 percent of its cotton farmers. Thus, the
payments to about 2,500 relatively well-off farmers has the unintended but
nevertheless real effect of impoverishing some 10 million rural poor people in
West and Central Africa.

Something has to be done. Along with the countries of Benin and Chad, we have
submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organization — which is meeting in
Cancún, Mexico, in September to discuss agricultural issues — that calls for an
end to unfair subsidies granted by developed countries to their cotton
producers. As an interim measure, we have also proposed that least-developed
countries be granted financial compensation for lost export revenues that are
due to those subsidies.

Our demand is simple: apply free trade rules not only to those products that
are of interest to the rich and powerful, but also to those products where poor
countries have a proven comparative advantage. We know that the world will not
ignore our plea for a fair playing field. The World Trade Organization has said
it is committed to addressing the problems of developing countries. The United
States has convinced us that a free market economy provides the best
opportunities for all members of the world community. Let us translate these
principles into deeds at Cancún.

Amadou Toumani Touré and Blaise Compaoré are the presidents, respectively, of
Mali and Burkina Faso.

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