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Cancún Targets Cotton

September 13, 2003

It's not often you see Africans looking like potential big
winners at big international gatherings. But this week
François Traore, the head of Burkina Faso's National Cotton
Producers Union, has been positively beaming, and at center
stage, at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Cancún.
He is part of the West African delegation that has managed,
much to the chagrin of United States trade negotiators, to
make cotton a test case of the W.T.O.'s commitment to a
level playing field for trade in agricultural goods. It is
a fitting test case, and it is up to the Bush
administration to address the Africans' legitimate demands
and give the trade talks a significant boost.

Burkina Faso is one of four major West African cotton
producers, all of which have long complained that their
farmers are being unfairly cut out of the international
market by subsidized American cotton. Farmers of many
products in poor countries have the same complaints about
the way wealthy countries rig the trade game. The fact that
cotton is the only commodity to be singled out by the
W.T.O. at Cancún may - as Washington certainly believes -
have to do with the fact that Europeans grow very little
cotton. The United States is the principal culprit, and
there is an element of ganging up on Uncle Sam at play.
There was certainly something cheeky about officials from
the European Union, whose subsidies for farm products
generally exceed those of the United States, cheering on
the Africans' proposal.

That said, there are plenty of substantive reasons for
singling out cotton. America's lavish handouts to its
cotton farmers, which can reach $3 billion a year, hurt
some of the world's poorest nations by driving world cotton
prices below the cost of production. It is one commodity in
which these least-developed nations would clearly have a
competitive advantage in the absence of America's unfair
trade practices. Washington is understandably having a hard
time defending a program that costs taxpayers billions to
keep 25,000 cotton growers, most of them politically
powerful and quite wealthy, in business. The surplus
created by this absurd form of rural workfare is then
dumped on world markets, at a grievous cost to 10 million
West African cotton farmers.

"This is about feeding our people, and getting our children
to school," said Fatiou Akplogan, Benin's minister of
commerce and industry. The Africans' cotton initiative,
formally debated late on the first day of the gathering in
Cancún, a Mexican seaside resort, calls on the United
States and others to agree now (as opposed to waiting for
the end of this round of trade talks next year) to abolish
their cotton subsidies within the next three years and to
compensate poor cotton-producing nations harmed by these
subsidies in the interim. The need to do something to
address the suffering of cotton growers in sub-Saharan
Africa has such strong moral appeal that the W.T.O.'s own
secretary general, Supachai Panitchpakdi from Thailand,
took the unusual step of chiming in that he thought the
proposal had a lot of merit.

Once dismissive of the Africans' cotton initiative, the
American delegation at Cancún is now scrambling to head it
off. The Americans are proposing a grandiose but vague plan
to support the African cotton and textile industries in all
kinds of other ways. The African ministers seem amused at
Washington's sudden interest in helping them build a
stronger textile industry, and reasonably regard it as an
effort to change the subject from the subsidy issue.

Washington could strike a deal without labeling it a
compensation scheme. Its more churlish concerns about
conceding on this before the Europeans and others make any
concessions need to be abandoned. The United States would
go a long way toward reclaiming its moral leadership on
trade matters if it reached a deal on cotton with the
Africans while still at Cancún.

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/13/opinion/13SAT1.html?ex=1064492234&ei=1&en=e586bffd44c63ced


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