African farmers sow cotton to harvest deficits

Subsidies paid to cotton producers, especially in the United States, prompted an impassioned plea for a fairer deal on trade for Africa at a weekend Franco-African summit, where President Jacques Chirac lent his voice to the campaign.

“African farmers must receive a fair reward for their work,” Chirac said here, days before a key ministerial meeting in Hong Kong on global free trade negotiations.

Agriculture has proved the thorniest issue in the four years of talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) amid calls by developing countries for rich nations to slash subsidies and import tariffs which are accused of skewing farm trade against the poor.

France, which received €9,418-billion ($11,298-billion) in 2004, is the top recipient of European Union agricultural subsidies.

“Cotton, produced by 33 African countries, is symbolic of inequitable trade which deprives our countries of indispensable resources…” Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told the opening of the Bamako summit on Saturday.

“Are we going to continue in Africa sowing cotton to harvest deficits, while others, more affluent, sow the same cotton to harvest subsidies?”

Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, for which cotton is a vital export, have said their interests must not be sidelined at the Hong Kong summit from December 13-18.

The European Commission has said it will push for a substantial cut in cotton subsidies at the meeting.

And Chirac, keen to stress here that France was the “tireless advocate of Africa,” called “upon the United States to remove the subsidies to their cotton producers as Europe has undertaken to do”.

“Such subsidies impoverish millions of small African producers, despite the competitiveness of the latter,” he said on Saturday.

The Association of African Cotton Producers (AProCA) expressed satisfaction at France’s statement. “It’s the first time he has spoken so clearly on the issue… pending things becoming concrete as we hope,” said the association’s permanent secretary Mamadou Ouattara.

Washington’s pay-outs to the US cotton industry have been ruled illegal by the Geneva-based WTO.
The United States is the world’s biggest cotton producing nation.

The 2 700 largest US cotton producers split up one third of all subsidies paid worldwide in the sector, according to a study sponsored by West African cotton producers released last month.

US trade chief Rob Portman, ahead of a trip to Burkina Faso last month, outlined US proposals at the WTO to cut export subsidies for its agricultural goods by 2010, and to scrap an export subsidy programme specifically for US cotton. - Sapa-AFP