Cotton farmer, Mali

Photo credit: ©Nick Rabinowitz/Oxfam

This cotton farmer in the Fana district of Mali. in West Africa, recives a very low price for his crop. One reason is that 'dumped' cotton from Europe and the United States, exported at less than the cost of production, is depressing prices for poor African farmers like this.

Cotton is Mali's primary export crop, and many farmers in the area rely on the earnings from the cotton harvest to support their families.In this West African country, 64 per cent of the population lives in poverty and more than three-quarters of its citizens depends on agriculture to survive. One-third of Mali's population is engaged in growing or processing cotton.

In 2003 cotton contributed about $205 million to Mali's economy, and represented 60 per cent of agricultural exports and 13 per cent of total exports. But this total was $15 million less than it should have been, according to Oxfam. The problem? European and American farmers are growing cotton at a loss, and exporting it at prices less than the cost of production. Their governments are making up the difference, so more is being grown than is needed. This "dumping" is distorting the market. Prices are now a solid 10 per cent less than they should be.

Still, Mali's government relies on its farmers to keep growing cotton. Although not providing any meaningful subsidies, it offers loans to cover expenses and guarantees it will buy all the farmers can grow. Mali then exports the cotton in order to earn the hard currency it needs to pay off its loans to the World Bank. Both the government and the farmers have few alternatives to their dependence on cotton. While the government pays as much as it can, the depressed world prices don't allow farmers to make a decent living.

Low cotton prices and mounting expenses in Mali and about seven other African countries are devastating farmers. "The economy is too dependent on cotton, and this is a source of great difficulties for farmers," explained Ibrahim Coulibaly, Director of External Relations for the Association of Professional Producers of Mali. "This year, many farmers won't earn enough to pay off their debts. Or it might be more serious: they might even stop farming entirely."

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