How cotton farmers pay price of cheap US imports

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The Independent Online

The massive subsidies paid to American cotton farmers are destroying the businesses of producers in west Africa.

It costs three times more to produce one pound of cotton in the US than in Mali. But Mali and other countries are being swamped with cheap US imports, and so far their pleas to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have gone unanswered.

In 2001, $17m (about £10m) in subsidies was paid to just 10 American farms. Every acre of cotton farmland in the US attracts a subsidy of $230. Last year, cotton subsidies amounted to almost $4bn - three times the sum given by the US to treat HIV and Aids in Africa.

Cotton prices in central and west Africa, where 10 million people are dependent on the industry, have slumped - but they still cannot compete with the flood of cheap imports from the US.

A report by Oxfam, expected this year, will estimate that American subsidies cost Africa $301m in 2001. Mali lost 1.7 per cent of its GDP and 8 per cent from its export earnings. The subsidies also make a mockery of the aid programme. Mali received $37m in aid in 2001, but lost $43m in export earnings.

Celine Charvariat, head of Oxfam's advocacy office in Geneva, said: "American taxpayers are financing the destruction of the livelihoods of millions of cotton farmers in Africa. The cotton barons of Texas and Alabama are getting huge subsidies and driving more efficient African farmers out of business."

Soloba Mady Keita, a cotton farmer in Mali, said: "Life is tougher than it's ever been, and we no longer live year to year - we now live day to day. When it comes to trade, we are totally forgotten."

Katharine Hamnett, the British fashion designer, is supporting a campaign by Oxfam to get the cotton subsidies scrapped at the next WTO talks in September. She said: "People should start voting with their feet - go into shops and demand fair trade cotton, and buy clothes made from fair traded and organic products."