Tuesday, August 05, 2003

The Long Reach of King Cotton

An excellent editorial in today's New York Times:

If it weren't killing them, people in Burkina Faso might get a good laugh at America's unprofitable cotton-growing fetish. Burkinabe, after all, are known for their sense of humor. And what could be more absurd than the sight of the world's richest nation — a fiery preacher of free-trade and free-market values at that — spending $3 billion or $4 billion a year in taxpayer money to grow cotton worth less than that and selling its mounting surpluses at an ever greater loss?

But those American subsidies are killing the Burkinabe farmers, so the inclination to laugh hardens to sorrow and resentment. As in neighboring Mali and Benin, cotton has long been the sole bright spot in this country's ever-dismal economic prospects. White gold, they still call it, though now there's a hint of sarcasm to the expression. Subsidized American cotton farmers now dump so much product on the market that it has driven down world prices. So much so that it currently costs Burkina Faso's cotton industry, traditionally one of the lowest-cost producers, about a dime more than the prevailing global price to get a kilo of cotton to international markets.

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The odds have always been stacked against Burkina Faso, a small landlocked country in the West African Sahel, the region between the Sahara and the Atlantic. This predominantly Muslim nation, where life expectancy has yet to hit the half-century mark, ranks third from the bottom in global rankings of living standards.

Americans send some of their finest young people to places like Burkina Faso, where there are almost 80 Peace Corps volunteers and plans to double that number. The United States also backs debt-forgiveness programs for Burkina Faso and other types of economic assistance. But Americans would be horrified to learn that all the good accomplished by dedicated volunteers and millions of dollars in aid is overwhelmed by the havoc wreaked by Washington's bloated cotton subsidies. By cutting generous checks to 25,000 American cotton farmers whose average net worth is nearly $1 million, Washington underwrites massive overproduction. This results in depressed global prices and a harvest of poverty for Burkina Faso's two million cotton farmers.

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"King Cotton," the evocative old shorthand for the supremacy of cotton in Southern culture, still ranks high among the hierarchy of Washington's power lobbies. No other crop is subsidized to such an outrageous degree, enriching so few at a cost so high to millions elsewhere. America's cotton subsidies, mind you, exceed the gross domestic product of Burkina Faso. Because the federal welfare program for cotton growers is so generous and unlimited, guaranteeing farmers an inflated price for every additional pound of cotton they produce, America's share of the world market has been increasing at a time when global prices have been crashing. More than half of all cotton grown in this country is now exported, only because taxpayers subsidize its sale at below production costs.

All the good will engendered by American aid and the sterling efforts of Peace Corps volunteers is washed away by the outrage ordinary Burkinabe cotton farmers feel about the $180 billion farm bill that Congress approved in 2002. In the small western village of Koumbia, where on a recent sweltering day women stooped over, rhythmically wielding simple hoes, to weed cotton plantings, people make a direct connection between their own impoverishment and that 10-year subsidy authorization passed on the other side of the planet. The way the people of Koumbia see it, their never-completed schoolhouse might as well have been pictured on the legislation's title page.