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The Terrorism of US Cotton Subsidies

August 5, 2003
The Long Reach of King Cotton
NY TIMES
Harvesting Poverty Special Editorial

If it weren't killing them, people in Burkina Faso might get a good laugh at America's unprofitable cotton-growing fetish. Burkinabe, after all, are known
for their sense of humor. And what could be more absurd than the sight of the
world's richest nation — a fiery preacher of free-trade and free-market values
at that — spending $3 billion or $4 billion a year in taxpayer money to grow cotton worth less than that and selling its mounting surpluses at an ever greater loss?

But those American subsidies are killing the Burkinabe farmers, so the inclination to laugh hardens to sorrow and resentment. As in neighboring Mali
and Benin, cotton has long been the sole bright spot in this country's ever- dismal economic prospects. White gold, they still call it, though now there's a
hint of sarcasm to the expression. Subsidized American cotton farmers now dump
so much product on the market that it has driven down world prices. So much so
that it currently costs Burkina Faso's cotton industry, traditionally one of the lowest-cost producers, about a dime more than the prevailing global price
to get a kilo of cotton to international markets.

American farm subsidies, like those in Europe and Japan, are intended to support a traditional way of life and save farmland from either development or
abandonment. If city-dwelling Americans think of the subsidies at all, it is to
complain about their cost, or to express a vague sense of satisfaction that we
are protecting what seems like a wholesome part of Americana. The idea that we
might be inadvertently ruining the chances of small African farmers never occurs to us. But it certainly occurs to the people in the cotton districts of
Burkina Faso.

The odds have always been stacked against Burkina Faso, a small landlocked country in the West African Sahel, the region between the Sahara and the Atlantic. This predominantly Muslim nation, where life expectancy has yet to hit the half-century mark, ranks third from the bottom in global rankings of living standards.

Americans send some of their finest young people to places like Burkina Faso,
where there are almost 80 Peace Corps volunteers and plans to double that number. The United States also backs debt-forgiveness programs for Burkina Faso
and other types of economic assistance. But Americans would be horrified to learn that all the good accomplished by dedicated volunteers and millions of dollars in aid is overwhelmed by the havoc wreaked by Washington's bloated cotton subsidies. By cutting generous checks to 25,000 American cotton farmers
whose average net worth is nearly $1 million, Washington underwrites massive overproduction. This results in depressed global prices and a harvest of poverty for Burkina Faso's two million cotton farmers.

"America wants us to comprehend the evil posed by violent anti-Western terrorism, and we do," said President Blaise Compaoré in an interview in the capital city of Ouagadougou. "But we want you to equally concern yourself with
the terror posed here by hunger and poverty, a form of terrorism your subsidies
are aiding and abetting. If we cannot sell our cotton we will die."

"King Cotton," the evocative old shorthand for the supremacy of cotton in Southern culture, still ranks high among the hierarchy of Washington's power lobbies. No other crop is subsidized to such an outrageous degree, enriching so
few at a cost so high to millions elsewhere. America's cotton subsidies, mind
you, exceed the gross domestic product of Burkina Faso. Because the federal welfare program for cotton growers is so generous and unlimited, guaranteeing
farmers an inflated price for every additional pound of cotton they produce, America's share of the world market has been increasing at a time when global
prices have been crashing. More than half of all cotton grown in this country
is now exported, only because taxpayers subsidize its sale at below production
costs.

All the good will engendered by American aid and the sterling efforts of Peace
Corps volunteers is washed away by the outrage ordinary Burkinabe cotton farmers feel about the $180 billion farm bill that Congress approved in 2002.
In the small western village of Koumbia, where on a recent sweltering day women
stooped over, rhythmically wielding simple hoes, to weed cotton plantings, people make a direct connection between their own impoverishment and that 10-year subsidy authorization passed on the other side of the planet. The way the people of Koumbia see it, their never-completed schoolhouse might as well have been pictured on the legislation's title page.

If the United States terminated its cotton subsidies, commodity prices would rebound to more realistic levels, allowing third-world cotton farmers to compete and earn a profit on their crops. And by terminating trade-distorting farming subsidies, Washington would defuse a potent source of feverish anti- Americanism.

It's hard for most Americans, who don't think about farm subsidies at all, to
take this problem seriously. It's also hard for farm states, which think of federal aid simply as a way to help hard-working local farmers, to appreciate
how intensely, and bitterly, the Africans feel. But most of the developing world believes in the superpower's omniscience. No one in Burkina Faso imagines
the impact on their cotton growers was anything but deliberate.

"If the United States can go to the moon, which is rather complicated, one would think it could figure out a way, if it wanted, to help its cotton producers, without hurting us farmers in Africa," said François Traore, president of Burkina Faso's National Cotton Producers Union. Many Burkinabe farmers erroneously believe that President Bush himself pockets sizable
cotton-growing subsidies.

Burkina Faso's hand-picked cotton is the cash crop that permits smallholder farmers to buy fertilizers and invest in the other crops that get rotated on the land. "If cotton doesn't sell at a decent price, it affects everything else," Mr. Traore said. That includes Koumbia's little schoolhouse, whose third classroom remains unfinished.

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