Francois Tani and his 30-member family produced 50 tonnes of cotton this year - three more tonnes than last year - on their farm in the western cotton belt of Burkina Faso. But the family has less to show for it.
“This year I have tilled 28 hectares, eight more than last year, hoping to have enough to face family needs,” said Tani. “Unfortunately, I earned less than last year.”
Farmers blame developed countries, namely the United States, for their losses. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Last year, the 25,000 US cotton producers received more than US $4.5 billion in subsidies, according to Oxfam. Burkinabe farmers complain that the subsidies lead to overproduction, flooding the international market with cotton and driving down prices.
Farmers in Burkina Faso earned 165 CFA francs (US $0.32) per kg of cotton this year compared with 175 CFA francs last year. And just two years ago, the price was 210 CFA francs per kilo.
Cotton is Burkina Faso’s main export. Three million of the country’s 12 million inhabitants depend on cotton production for income while another three million live on collateral activities around the commodity. This year, cotton reached a landmark production of 713,000 tonnes in Burkina Faso, compared with 600,000 tonnes last year.
As a result of the falling prices, thousands of West African farmers have given up cotton production.
In Burkina Faso’s Leraba province, Lamoussa Ouattara’s younger brothers have already fled to Cote d’Ivoire, despite its civil war, hoping to earn a better living. Instead of the US $200 each family member received at the end of every season, they now get only US $100, Ouattara said.
“It is hard to find something else profitable to replace cotton,” he said. “We tried sesame and other cereals but everybody else produces the same and overproduction means lower prices.”
West African cotton producers had hoped that World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in July would lead to a reduction in US subsidies, especially because developed countries had already committed to taking measures that would ensure that developing countries had a share in the growth of world trade through market access, balanced rules, capacity building programmes and technical assistance.
Some trade experts believe the WTO framework subordinates development to corporate-driven free trade and marginalises developing countries even further.
“We do not want to stop them assisting their producers, we are just reminding them to respect their commitments and allow our cotton to become a development tool for millions of poor,” said Francois Traore, president of the African Cotton Producers (APROCAT) organisation and president of the Burkina Faso National Cotton Producers Union (UNPCB).
When cotton prices peaked between 1994 and 2004, at the same time as Burkina Faso achieved a significant boost in its growth rates, poverty in the country did not decrease, and in some rural areas increased, according to a study by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID).
DfID said that for the one-fifth of Burkina’s rural population dependent on the cotton industry, low growth rates were caused by low productivity due to lack of investment, and fluctuating climate.
In recent years, some farmers have begun resorting to organic fertiliser, such as manure and compost, because they cannot afford chemical fertilisers. Others are just reducing the quantity of fertiliser to the hectare to two bags instead of the normal four. Even though the Burkinabe government has kept the fertiliser price unchanged at US $25, shrinking incomes are still taking a toll on farmers.
“We just work to pay debts, and nothing else for our sweat and future,” Ouattara said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions