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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Cotton subsidies squeeze Mali
By Joan Baxter
BBC, Kongseguila, southern Mali

African cotton producers are joining Brazil in their official complaint to the World Trade Organization about subsidies paid to their counterparts in the United States and Europe.

An old man in Konseguila, southern Mali, weaves cotton on a traditional loom
Cotton is the mainstay of Mali's economy
In the US, for example, some 25,000 cotton producers receive almost $4bn a year in subsidies.

According to the World Bank, this has had a substantial influence on the world price for cotton, which has been hovering at all-time lows in the past two years.

At least 10 million small-scale cotton growers in West and Central Africa are suffering dramatically from the plummeting prices.

In a good year, in the village of Konseguila, southern Mali, small-scale farmers can earn about up to a $1,000 a year by growing cotton.

That is about three times the average annual income in this impoverished country in West Africa.

Hunger reigns

But this is not a good year.

Restaurant owner Alima Kone says the cotton crisis is slicing into the bone of an already skeletal local economy.

Key issues at the trade talks

She says people rarely come to eat at her establishment any more as they have no money. Hunger is everywhere and the next harvest is several months away.

Cheik Kone, who has been growing cotton for three decades says he has never suffered like this before.

He says this year he lost. He did not get back the money he put into his nine hectares of cotton - the seed, pesticides and fertiliser and that is not counting the back-breaking months of sweat and toil he and his family put into the fields they work entirely by hand.

Cotton economy

Now he is not just poor - he is also indebted.

"Everything is linked to cotton here, we pay for everything with money that grows on the cotton vine - our clothing, building our homes, everything."

Cheik Kone
Cheik Kone in Konseguila says he lost money this year on cotton
"The problem is the world price, we Malian cotton growers have no subsidies. But the developed countries, the United States, subsidise their cotton producers so when the cotton price falls, they have no problem."

The shockwaves of the plummeting cotton prices are felt throughout Mali.

More than three million Malians - a third of the population - depend on cotton not just to live but to survive.

The British charity Oxfam says the rock-bottom cotton price can be blamed directly on enormous subsidies paid to US cotton farmers, while African farmers have lost $300m.

"For the 25,000 cotton farmers in America, each of them has benefited $230 per acre," said Mohamed Ould Mahmoud director for Oxfam in Mali.

"In Mali, in 2001 they got from USAID $37.7m, and they lost $43m because of American subsidies on cotton. So you ask yourself sometimes, who is helping whom?"

Pollution problem

In Koutiala, southern Mali, cotton fibres that escape from the packing plant choke the air, causing breathing problems.

> The reek of pesticides used to grow cotton is everywhere and the bubbling brook that once ran through the town, is now a stinking bed of black and green sludge - the residue from the cotton oil extraction plant.

The people of Koutiala pay a high price for the cotton they grow and export.

Until now, it was a price Malians were willing to pay. But now the people in the village cannot afford to pay for their children's healthcare or send them to school.

Cotton production is polluting Koutiala
But Abdoullaye Abbas Sylla who heads the union of cotton workers says between 30 and 40% of the population rely on cotton and any drop in world prices, affects them directly.

On a recent visit to Mali, World Bank Vice President, Callisto Madavo, also spoke out against the enormous subsidies paid to cotton farmers in America and Europe.

The World Bank has advocated strongly on behalf of the farmers of West and Central Africa, that subsidies should be removed.

The influence of these subsidies on prices in the world market is substantial.

And it is not just the impact on the Malian economy, it is that we are talking about a crop that is being grown by some of the poorest farmers, so the impact in terms of poverty is severe.

Fighting subsidies

Mali's Finance Minister Bassary Toure goes even further in his criticism of European and American governments.

"The money that those countries put into agricultural subsidies is five time what they give as development assistance. And we've always said to those rich countries, "you're hypocrites". You tell us to play the rules of the open market at the same time as you subsidise your farmers."

Konseguila was once a wealthy place
"How can they twist the arms of our impoverished farmers, when they're using extraordinary amounts of money to subsidise farmers in America and Europe?"

Mali has now linked up with Benin, Burkina Faso and Chad, to fight along with Brazil the US and European cotton subsidies at the World Trade Organization.

But back in Konseguila, all this talk does nothing to ease the immediate suffering and mayor Tiecoura Kone, says the famine is serious. He has a message for western governments.

"If the West is going to continue to subsidise its farmers the people in the impoverished country of Mali will continue to harvest the costs."

Africa battles US over cotton
01 May 03  |  Business
Mali fears cotton shortfall
30 Jul 02  |  Business
South Africans cut their cloth
14 Jan 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Mali
06 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Mali
04 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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