Paying the price for cotton

Ivory Coast cotton is weaved into fabric for home and abroad [Credit: Gladys Njoroge]

Al Jazeera has been talking to people across the world for their thoughts and perspectives on the US presidential race and how it will affect their lives.

Haru Mutasa, Al Jazeera's Africa correspondent, travelled to the US to find out how agricultural subsidies are affecting African farmers and global trade and to ask whether the situation is likely to change under a new administration.

For Koulibaly Seyolou in the Ivory Coast, growing cotton was supposed to be easy.

He would sell most of what he grew abroad and earn good money to feed his five children.
But it did not work out that way.

His crop of cotton is good – it is just impossible to sell it internationally.
He says he has barely managing to feed his children - and he blames the United States for his family's hardship. 
"Of course I blame the American government," he says in frustration.

"The subsidies they give their cotton farmers give them an unfair advantage. I have to pay my own costs because Ivory Coast is poor."

Lack of progress

In focus

In-depth coverage of the US election
Subsidies given to American farmers create a global over- supply of cotton – which reduces prices paid to African farmers.

The Oxfam aid agency estimates the losses to cotton farmers in Africa to have been $305m in 2001 alone.
African farmers want the subsidies paid to their US counterparts to be removed or, at the very least, scaled down.

Some are even calling for a special compensation programme to be put in place where African farmers are given a certain sum to cushion them from bankruptcy should they fail to move their crop.
The Bush administration says it is committed to removing unfair trade barriers.

But critics say the lack of progress in doing so raises doubts on how serious it is. 

Growing frustration

Barry's family has been growing cotton in
the US for generations [Gladys Njoroge]

The US congress recently approved a $290bn farm bill giving more lucrative subsidies to farmers, not less.

And, it seems, most American farmers are happy with the way things are.

While they say they sympathise with African farmers – they do not want to lose their subsidies.
Barry Evans's family has been growing cotton for generations in Olton in the southern state of Texas.

"I don't see [how] removing subsidies would help. We are in the same boat as African farmers, we want to sell our cotton on the world market – and African farmers want to sell theirs on the world market too," he says.

"We want to do the same thing. And we are fortunate we have these subsidies – I don't see it as depressing the world price in fact, if you look at the word market, you'll see that hasn't been the case at all."

But the issue for American farmers seems to be how much one is subsidised.

Those with more land get more money – a bone of contention with small-scale cotton growers.
Ken Galloway, another cotton farmer in Olton, is frustrated. 
"It doesn't help me out and I see other farmers who are very large farmers ... [who] you can tell are pretty well off, living in big houses and they have a lot of equipment," he explains.

"So when I see that, I am puzzled - why that does person needs a subsidy? Why does he need my tax dollars to fund his operation? That doesn't make sense to me."

Commitment doubts

Cotton is an important source of revenue
for the Ivory Coast [Gladys Njoroge]
But those in the cotton industry in Africa want to know when things will change.

Cotton is an important revenue earner for the Ivory Coast and it is not only sold in its raw form. The cotton is often weaved into colourful cloth for sale locally and abroad. 

But global trade talks have failed to come up with a solution.

Countries such as the US are not willing to remove subsidies and African nations argue their concerns are not being taken seriously enough. 
The longer it takes to hammer-out a solution, the more African farmers doubt the US is committed to promoting fair trade in the developing world – even if it says it is.

And analysts argue that neither George Bush, the US president, nor the US congress, seem likely to seriously engage powerful farm lobbies.

This makes some in Africa wonder if a new administration will make any difference.

 Source: Al Jazeera

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