Banana Blues

Article excerpt

A farmers' group in Burkina Faso gains clout in its battle against the liberalization of agriculture, and turns to the global movement for support

Ousseini Ouedraogo, forty-something, looks like a lumberjack. He has the moral strength of one, too. Ouedraogo coordinates the programmes of the National Federation of Farmers' Organizations (FENOP), a group that was set up in 1996 and boasts 197 unions, 500 grassroots associations and some 400,000 members in every corner of Burkina Faso.

Ouedraogo, an agronomist who descends from Princess Yennenga--the ancestor of the Mosse, Burkina Faso's main ethnic group--is fighting for the farmers in his country, where nearly 80 per cent of the population lives off the land. Almost non-existent farm mechanization, illiteracy and low yields mean they are barely able to eke out an existence. And yet, the country owes them everything. Cotton, Burkina Faso's primary source of foreign currency, accounted for two-thirds of export earnings in 1998, or over 1.2 billion French francs ($171.4 million). Breeding accounted for 15 per cent of exports ($38.5 million) the same year.

"For us, farmers are full-fledged citizens," says Ouedraogo. "They are entitled to respect. We are working to improve their status and to defend their interests. We're always there wherever and whenever one of our members needs us." The FENOP fought its first battle against an "internal enemy." In 1997, the organization clashed with the Textile Fibre Company (SOFITEX), which rules the cotton industry and has a monopoly on input and sales. Cotton was in crisis. A black veil covered the "white gold." Cotton fields were overrun by caterpillars, and the pesticides supplied by a SOFITEX subsidiary were ineffective. Some farmers left the country, others committed suicide. Growers who went into debt up to their necks at the start of each agricultural season felt as if they had a knife to their throats.

Appealing to popular opinion, Ouedraogo and his organization asked a private newspaper, Le Pays, to see for itself. SOFITEX counter-attacked by staging a propaganda tour of a cotton-growing region for other newspapers. That is when the FENOP received unexpected support from L'Independant, directed by the famous investigative journalist Norbert Zongo, who was assassinated on December 13, 1998. Protests swelled and the government had to calm things down: it wiped out all the debts that farmers had contracted to purchase the pesticides. This was the first time in any farmer's living memory that the State backed down in the face of angry protests.

The FENOP is proud of that victory, but it had to keep on fighting, this time on the broader front of farm industry liberalization. In the 1980s, structural adjustment policies had dealt severe blows to farm aid such as subsidized fertilizers and training. Moreover, lower import duties helped to increase competition between national and foreign products on the domestic market. Intergovernmental accords signed in January 2000 in the framework of West Africa's regional integration policy only furthered the trend towards lower customs barriers. …