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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Friday, September 01, 2006

End of a cotton-pickin' nation

Julie Beth is half of Friday Chick Blogging. You can read more of her at It's an Outrage.

Do you ever think about where the cotton you're wearing came from? A bit of it might have come from West Africa, where a lot of cotton is grown by impoverished farmers and sold at dirt cheap prices because enormous American cotton subsidies keep world cotton prices artificially low.

In fact, American cotton subsides cost many poor, cotton-growing countries more than the United States gives them in aid. And yet the Bush administration has steadfastly fought to retain the subsidies and has only recently begun to buckle under World Trade Organization pressure and mandates.

Oxfam says:
The economic losses inflicted by the US cotton subsidy program far outweigh the benefits of its aid. Mali received $37m in aid in 2001 but lost $43m as a result of lower export earnings...The financial damage inflicted by US cotton subsidies has grave implications for poverty. Cotton growers in the US can shift relatively easily to other crops, but the scope for substitution is much more limited in the Sahel. Grown alongside maize and other cereals, cotton is the main cash crop for a large section of the rural population.
The problem, of course, is that kidnapped West Africans were enslaved so American southern plantations owners could grow and process cotton with little overhead and keep prices low. Even though those farmers can't do that anymore, they continue to enslave West Africans from afar by accepting astronomical subsidies that prop up American cotton prices and keep West African farmers from breaking even.

Cotton farmer sleeping in Burkina Fasso.
Cotton farmer sleeping at the market day in Gorom Gorom, Burkina Faso.
The American South can no longer produce cotton as well or as cheaply as other areas of the world can. That means the long legacy of the United States as a cotton-growing (and picking) nation is in its last days. Families that have grown cotton for generations and hundreds of years will now have to grow something else, or get out of the growing business entirely.

It's sad when traditions like that die, but it's not tragic. It's a tragedy when American calls for free and open markets fall on deaf ears all over the world because they know what we really mean is, "Free markets for us, but not for you."

And it's a tragedy when millions of West African children go hungry during growing season so that an American farmer can get rich on tax dollars and still be able to say that he grows cotton just like his daddy did, and his daddy before him.


Anonymous Morgan said...

I really enjoy your blog--this is a topic I'd never even heard about. I'm going to add you on my links.


Blogger Arya said...

Yes, US cotton subsidies have replaced African slaves working on American cotton plantations...

Although cotton subsidies paid to a handful (2500) of American corporate cotton "farmers" in the US ($US 4-5 billion/annum) is causing substantial economic prejudices and financial loses to African cotton producing nations in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and is seriously threatening both the survival of the cotton sector and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale cotton farmers throughout SSA, simply eliminating US cotton subsidies will NOT revive the cotton sector and will fail to improve the economic and social welfare of cotton farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact, estimates by the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), using its World Textile Demand Model, clearly indicate that the elimination of American cotton subsidies would raise cotton prices by $US 11 cents per pound ($0,24 cents/kg).

However, any marginal increase in the price of cotton resulting from an end to trade distorting cotton subsidies is:

1) Likely going to be pocketed by the numerous exploitative middlemen along the cotton supply chain (i.e. plantation owners,traders, ginners, exporters, government, etc) and is not likely to benefit the cotton farmers in terms of higher farm-gate seed cotton prices, thus failing to reduce poverty among the most vulnerable and affected economic agent within the local cotton supply chain - the African cotton farmer.

2) Any marginal increase in the price of cotton lint resulting from an elimination of trade distorting cotton subsidies is inevitably going to be offset by the "invisible hand" of the market; an increase in the price of cotton lint is going to be followed by a corresponding increase in the supply of cotton, bringing back the price to its "equilibrium" level (i.e. demand=supply), thus offsetting the initial price increase resulting from the elimination of the cotton subsidies.

In this context, it seems evident that the solution to reviving the cotton sector in sub-Saharan Africa is to ADD-VALUE to the cotton by locally processing the cotton throughout the supply chain - from spinning yarn, weaving fabrics, dyeing & printing, designing to textile and garment manufacturing. Local value-addition of cotton will enable both cotton farmers and cotton producing nations in SSA break free from the vicious trap cycle of declining cotton prices resulting from trade distorting US/EU cotton subsidies and from the dictate of the world market. Furthermore, processing the cotton locally will create critically lacking investment, desperately needed employment and generate income, thus creating economic growth within the economy. Last but not least, it will provide decent and affordable clothing to the local inhabitants, made by Africans using local African (organic) cotton and manufactured using designs that reflect African cultures, traditions and pride - thus putting a definite end to the daily humiliation Africans have to wear in the form of used clothing - known as "Kifua" or dead white mens' clothing - dumped accross Africa (to add insult to injury!).

I am presently working on a project to revive the cotton and textile sector in Tanzania (where both the cotton and textile sector is near-collapse)using non-exploitative labor practices and environmentally sustainable production methods. I am hoping to demonstrate - practically through this project - that it is both economically feasible and environmentally sustainable to produce textiles and garments in cotton producing countries in SSA using non-exploitative labor practices and environmentally sustainable production methods throughout the supply chain (i.e organic cotton, natural dyes, etc.) If this project proves successful, then I am hoping that it can serve as an example and a model to be widely replicated throughout cotton producing nations in both Africa and throughout the world.

As Gandhi rightly said: You cannot build a non-violent society based on exploitation; exploitation is the essence of violence."



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