Human Rights, Not "Trade Justice": One of the World's Poorest Countries Is about to Fight Its Corner against the Big Boys, Write James Knight and Katrina Manson

By Knight, James; Manson, Katrina | New Statesman (1996), December 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Human Rights, Not "Trade Justice": One of the World's Poorest Countries Is about to Fight Its Corner against the Big Boys, Write James Knight and Katrina Manson


Knight, James, Manson, Katrina, New Statesman (1996)


"We are slaves," says Tahere Niampa, with a fleck of cotton balancing on his lip. "The price of cotton is too low. We don't know what to do."

Niampa, 65, has been farming cotton in Burkina Faso, West Africa, since he was a boy. Last year he made the equivalent of roughly US$700, enough to feed his family for only a few months once loans for costly farming inputs such as seeds, insecticide and fertiliser were deducted.

"It's exhausting," says Niampa. "We work for nothing."

Unlike several nearby countries, Burkina Faso has no oil, diamonds or uranium, and hardly enough gold for a wedding ring. Burkina's own resource curse is that about the only thing that grows in its arid soil is cotton. The world price slump, largely brought about by US farming subsidies, means that "white gold" now flatters to deceive.

Cotton keeps 3.5 million people in business in Burkina Faso, Africa's largest producer. With a record-breaking harvest this year of 700,000 metric tonnes, the white stuff contributes 30 per cent of GDP and 70 per cent of export earnings.

In the United States, the world's second-largest producer of cotton after China, 28,000 people grow the crop. Last year, these farmers received $4.2bn in subsidies, more than the entire GDP of Burkina Faso. At the same time, its cotton industry lost an estimated $250m due to market distortions brought about by subsidies and tariffs. Burkina Faso remains the world's third-poorest country.

The Doha round of trade talks, in motion since 2001, was supposed to change all this. The Hong Kong meeting of the 148-member World Trade Organisation, beginning on 13 December, aims to give a leg-up to the little guys by providing preferential treatment on access to markets, cutting export subsidies entirely and much reducing domestic subsidies. Yet hopes of progress have evaporated quicker than Burkina Faso's fleeting summer rains.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Cotton--an employer of more than ten million people in West Africa and produced in 33 countries continent-wide--has become a political football lobbed back and forth across the Atlantic. The US wants the EU to open its market; the EU wants the US to slash cotton subsidies. It is a cagey game, with both sides claiming to be playing in African colours. …

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