Page last updated at 22:51 GMT, Tuesday, 25 July 2006 23:51 UK

Burkina's white gold fails to deliver wealth

By Orla Ryan
Sapone, Burkina Faso

Mr Moussa and his wives
Mr Moussa and his family say it is hard to survive on the cotton earnings

There are no roads to Sini Moussa's cotton farm.

Once you veer off the busy main road to Sapone, about an hour from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, the path quickly turns to dusty scrub.

"In this part of Sapone, everyone grows cotton," says Mr Moussa.

"In October, November, it will be white everywhere."

For Mr Moussa, growing cotton is his best chance of forging a living for himself and his family in his home country, having previously worked on cocoa plantations in neighbouring West African state Ivory Coast.

"I started to grow cotton to get money," he says.

"There was nothing else to do but cotton."

White gold

In a landscape scattered with mud houses, donkeys and carts, under the clearest of clear blue skies, Mr Moussa explains how his seven-hectare cotton farm brings in 500,000 CFA a year, helping him care for his three wives and seven children.

At harvest time, cotton buyers negotiate their trucks on these mud tracks, eager to get the cotton, which the Burkinabe people call white gold, to market.

But earning the money he needs to keep his family fed, clothed and in school is getting harder as cotton prices fall.

Three years ago, he got 210 CFA per kilo of cotton.

In the year ahead, he expects to get 165 CFA per kilo.

Mr Moussa sees only one reason for lower cotton prices, namely America's subsidies to its own cotton farmers.

These have led to oversupply on the world market, and this extra supply is depressing prices.

"In the US, the state helps them, here the state doesn't help us," he says.

Cotton economy

Farmers, such as Mr Moussa, have long wanted the issue of US cotton subsidies to be higher on the agenda of global trade talks.

Cotton workers
Burkina farmers struggle to get a good price for the white gold

With the talks failure this week, their hopes have been dashed.

The impact of falling cotton prices on the daily lives of Burkina's cotton farmers is tangible, says Francois Traore, head of the association of African cotton producers, Aproca.

Up to 310,000 families make their living from cotton in the West African country, he says.

Factor in 15 dependants for each family and about three million people rely on the income from cotton.

"When [the price] falls, one cannot look after the family," says Mr Traore.

"If there is not enough money, they will steal or leave Burkina.

"If they sell, they earn enough money and it is done."

US toil

Like Mr Moussa and thousands of other African farmers, Mr Traore clearly links lower prices with US subsidies.

And the dusty scrub where Mr Moussa tends his cotton is a far cry from the cotton fields Mr Traore saw on his visit to the US.

"Big tractor, big house, big car, and they have [only] two children," he says.

"In Burkina the families who don't have a plough have five children to feed and send to school.

"I am not jealous, but if they live well, we should also live well. We should also eat well. We are also growers, we work."

Rising protectionism

The stories Mr Moussa and other cotton farmers in Burkina tell represent one side of a vast global debate on how to make the world's markets a fairer place for some of its poorest people and countries.

But even if their US rivals were no longer receiving subsidies, African producers could still struggle to compete with producers elsewhere.

There is growing concern that anger at subsidies among African farmers could translate into protectionism in some African countries, as cotton growers feel that there is no chance that subsidies to Western farmers will evaporate.

On the wings of a successful campaign to encourage people in neighbouring Ghana to eat local rice, some farmers' groups are lobbying for higher tariffs on imports and incentives to buy locally-made textiles.

"The world is now a global village," says Mohammed Adam Nashiru of the Peasant Farmers' Association of Ghana.

"What happens to A has repercussions for B."

"These days, people even know that when you consume rice, you are being nationalistic.

"We should try to raise tariffs to stop importers hurting local producers. What we produce, we must consume it by ourselves."

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