- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Djiguina Tounkara, a cotton farmer from Kita in landlocked Mali, says President Bush’s need to court the U.S. farm vote has made it difficult for him to feed and clothe his family.

A respected Muslim elder with 12 acres of cotton, Mr. Tounkara has no electricity or running water in his home, but he does have a handle on the intricacies of U.S. domestic politics. He understands the need of American politicians to support U.S. farmers, but said it is killing him. Federal subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers have distorted the world cotton market, making it impossible for Mr. Tounkara to make a living.

Mr. Tounkara, representing about 16,000 farmers in his district, came to Washington last month for the U.S.-Africa Trade Summit. He said he was forced to send two of his eight children to the city to earn money to help support the family.

He said all the aid, debt relief and good will the United States pours into Africa count for little if he and his neighbors throughout the continent are ruined.

“The U.S. subsidies have a direct effect on my market price. They control my market price. I cannot get what I should for my cotton,” he said late last month, shrugging his shoulders in helplessness.

The Freedom to Farm Act of 2002 — containing $190 billion in subsidies over 10 years — guarantees U.S. farmers 72 cents a pound for cotton. Mr. Tounkara spends about 20 cents to produce a pound of cotton but is paid less than 15 cents a pound at current prices.

“It is the same for us all. The responsibilities I have as a father — school, health care, food — I cannot do. All the cotton we grow is planted and picked by hand. We want to mechanize, but can’t. Farmers are being driven out,” he said.

Zan Dossaye Diazza, agricultural director of the Mali Cotton Consortium, said subsidies to U.S. and European farmers are blocking Africa’s economic development — though African development is a specific goal of U.S. foreign aid to Mali and the rest of the continent.

“If I could sit with President Bush, I’d ask him to stop the subsidies. We are not asking for the United States to subsidize our farmers with aid. We only want to compete in a free market, where all sides respect the rules of the free-market game,” he said.

President Bush, speaking at a Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony in late May, addressed farmers of the developing world.

“We must also give farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia and elsewhere a fair chance to compete in world markets,” Mr. Bush said to sustained applause.

“When wealthy nations subsidize their agricultural exports, it prevents poor countries from developing their own agricultural sectors. So I propose that all developed nations, including our partners in Europe, immediately eliminate subsidies on agricultural exports to developing countries so that they can produce more food to export and more food to feed their own people.”

What is and is not defined as a “subsidy” permits Mr. Bush to direct that kind of statement to European governments, while ignoring the U.S. subsidies. But Mr. Bush’s words do not match his deeds, Mr. Diazza said.

“The rhetoric is good, but the U.S. subsidies are an obvious contradiction. What he says and what he does are different,” he said. “Stop the subsidies.”

For years, the cotton farmers of Mali and Burkina Faso, the sugar-cane growers of Brazil, the dairy farmers in Peru, the rice farmers of Haiti and the corn growers in Mexico have faced floods, drought, disease, other natural disasters and managed to survive — if barely.

“Another season like this will destroy our community,” said Brahima Outtara, of Logokourani, Burkina Faso, according to statements reported by the relief agency Oxfam.

Critics of the farm subsidies say the problem is that European and U.S. politicians pander to their farm lobbies by annually pouring billions of tax dollars into farming concerns, protecting them from price fluctuations and permitting them to overproduce, and then export or “dump” their surpluses abroad — depressing prices “over there” and making it impossible for local farmers to compete.

Mark Lange, chief executive officer of the Memphis-based National Cotton Council, supports farm subsidies and U.S. aid to Africa, but acknowledges that sometimes America’s domestic policy runs up against its foreign policy.

“The United States has a well-established goal of maintaining a sound food and fiber production system,” Mr. Lange said. “We have the cheapest and safest food and fiber supply system in the world. Do we sacrifice that for foreign policy goals?”

He says African farmers are as hindered by their own government’s export taxes, as they are by U.S. and European subsidies.

“Some governments in Africa, countries that have an export base, it’s a source of taxation, and that tends to stifle production,” he said.

Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a Texas Democrat, supports subsidies. But he said the trade battle between the “elephants,” the European Union and the United States, inadvertently hurts the “ants,” the developing world economies.

“When you negotiate, you have to negotiate from strength. We cannot disarm unilaterally,” Mr. Stenholm said. “If the Europeans will eliminate their subsidies, we’ll eliminate ours. The farm policy is not helpful to developing world farmers. Innocent people are being hurt. The obstacle is the European Union.”

Roger Bate, director of the Washington-based group Africa Fighting Malaria, frames the problem in terms of health care.

“All African health problems originate with poverty. The reason one child in Africa dies of malaria every 20 seconds is that Africa is ridiculously poor. We are concerned about anything that hinders trade and development. … Subsides to European and U.S. farmers are killing African children,” he said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has directed a number of speeches at the subsidies.

“These subsidies are wrong, and they interfere with international trade,” he told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a May 13, 2002, speech in Washington. “Let’s get rid of these subsidies and forget about aid.”

Echoing the “trade not aid” slogans of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development Africa, Mr. Museveni said trade creates jobs and helps end the “shame of African countries begging endlessly.”

The United States sold an estimated 2.2 million tons of taxpayer-subsidized cotton on the international market last year. By one estimate, Mali’s gross domestic product was cut 3 percent last year because of U.S. cotton overproduction, a loss that translates into thousands of unemployed.

Brazil says the combination of subsidies and overproduction has resulted in the dumping of U.S. cotton on the international markets, depressing world prices. It has filed a formal complaint against the United States before the World Trade Organization (WTO), stating that “no matter how efficient Brazilian cotton producers are, they cannot compete against the U.S. Treasury.”

Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, a critic of subsidies, agrees. He said sugar subsidies keep developing countries in the Caribbean out of U.S. markets and encourage farmers to overproduce cotton.

“Subsidies absolutely undermine our foreign policy goals,” Mr. Kolbe said. “U.S. farmers have a guaranteed price, so they keep producing, but the farmers in Mali are at the mercy of the world price.”

He said his colleagues on Capitol Hill, even some who support U.S. assistance to the developing world, don’t understand this.

“They say the farmers in their back yard need support. They don’t make the connection between our farm policy and our development programs overseas. It has never occurred to them,” he said.

Critics of the subsidies say it is hypocritical for the United States and Europe to demand free-market reforms in developing world economies while protecting their own from fluctuating prices and fair competition.

“At the same time we are dumping, we are pushing for African countries to liberalize, to open their markets to us,” said Gawain Kripke of Oxfam. “U.S. policy is schizophrenic. Our trade policy is in conflict with our interest in helping developing countries. The farmers in West Africa know exactly what American farmers are getting for cotton. It makes it much more difficult for the United states to manage our humanitarian goals because we look like hypocrites.”

A growing chorus of voices from the left and the right say the practice destroys overseas economies, turns farmers into refugees, prevents the developing world from progressing and undermines foreign policy goals.

“If we give $20 million in debt relief but they lose $25 million to dumped products, we are undermining our own aid effectiveness. It is quite absurd,” said Jennifer Brant, a trade specialist with Oxfam’s “Make Trade Fair” campaign.

Others agree, saying that since the September 11 attacks, it is particularly important for the United States to be seen as evenhanded when dealing with Muslim nations.

“Mali is a Muslim-majority country. Freedom House classifies it as ‘Free.’ Our reward to Mali is to drive down the price of their key commodity,” said Dan Griswold, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies. “Mali would export more cotton if the market weren’t depressed by U.S. subsidies. Africa doesn’t need more foreign aid. It needs access to markets.”

Mr. Griswold said that if U.S. jobs are lost by cutting farm subsidies, so be it.

“The low-end jobs here tend to be the best-paying jobs in the developing world. Our response should not be to hold on to every job there is in the United States, but to prepare our people for the jobs of the future,” he said.

The World Bank estimates that wealthy nations spend more than $300 billion a year on agricultural subsidies.

Kevin Hasset of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, who has written about European farm subsidies, calls these grants protectionist, anti-free market and a cause of misery in Africa. While his work was mainly directed at Europe, he said the United States is guilty, too.

“We should ‘unilaterally disarm,’ because it will be impossible to get Europe to [end subsidies] as long as they can point and say we are just as bad as they are,” Mr. Hasset said. “U.S. cotton, sugar, milk subsidies are just terrible … and staving off development in Africa.”

Europe is considered by far the biggest offender, subsidizing its farmers $50 billion a year, allowing it to be the world’s largest exporter of sugar, derived from beets. On June 26, Europe delinked subsidies from specific crops, but its farmers will still receive the $50 billion aid a year.

The United States is no innocent, spending about $20 billion a year to subsidize the country’s farmers. The United States gave an estimated $1.6 billion to Africa last year in economic, food development and disaster aid, and about $339 million in development aid, but critics say it undermines developing economies with farm subsides, export credits and other incentives that allow U.S. farmers to produce cotton, sugar, wheat and other produce far in excess of what they would grow if prices were not guaranteed by the government.

According to an Oxfam analysis of farm subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers, these growers split an estimated $4 billion in such aid a year, protecting them from the lowest cotton prices since the 1930s. Mali’s 11 million farmers have no such protection.

This puts Mali’s subsistence farmers at a disadvantage in competition with U.S. taxpayer-subsidized agribusiness. If the competition were fair, the African farmers could do well, said Miss Brant of Oxfam.

“The cotton farmers in West Africa are actually more efficient than American producers. Poor African farmers simply cannot compete with heavily subsidized American cotton that is exported at below the cost of production,” she said.

Oxfam, using government figures, says the United States and Europe spent $248 billion in subsidies, price supports, export credits and other spending protecting Western farmers from the market.

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