TWN Info Service on WTO Issues (July04/23)

29 July 2004

Third World Network

West African countries insist on urgent action on cotton

By Tetteh Hormeku, Geneva, 28 July 2004


The West African cotton producing countries have insisted that they were willing to show flexibility and allow the cotton issue to be addressed in the context of the agriculture negotiations on the condition that the cotton subsidies and other trade distorting practices applied by cotton producing developed countries were removed on an urgent and fast-track basis.  Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday 28 July on behalf of the West African cotton countries, the trade Ministers of Benin and Senegal attending this week’s  General Council meeting of the WTO  explained that  the West African countries expected the final July package to provide clear and unequivocal measures to deal with the cotton issue “ambitiously and expeditiously”.

In response to questions from journalists as to whether they were prepared to reject a final July package that did not reflect their concerns, the Ministers explained that they were in Geneva to participate in the negotiations in a positive spirit, but this did not mean that they were willing to swallow anything that was handed down to them.

They said that in the course of the visit of representatives of the West African countries to Washington prior to the General Council meeting, they had had comprehensive discussions with United States Trade Representative, Bob Zoëllick on both the development and trade aspects of the cotton issue.  They added that they listened to Ambassador Zoëllick explain the difficulties and constraints faced by the US in relation to the cotton issue, and in exchange explained to Zoëllick their own difficulties and limits as well as how far they were prepared to go, with each side promising to maintain dialogue on the issue.

Opening the press briefing, Benin’s permanent representative in Geneva, Ambassador Samuel Amehou recalled the evolution of the cotton issue from last year when four West African Heads of State addressed the General Council in Geneva, through the various meetings of groupings of both developed countries, such as the G8, as well as of developing countries including the LDC meeting in Dakar this year, the Kigali meeting of the African ministers of trade, and the recent meetings in Mauritius of the ACP group and the G90.  He reminded that throughout  this period, the cotton issue had been understood on all sides as a specific problem which required urgent, specific attention, an understanding which before and at Cancun was expressed in a decision to treat cotton as a separate issue. 

Amb.  Amehou said that since Cancun however, difficulties began to be expressed on the cotton issue being addressed on a separate basis, which led to the June meetings of ACP and G90 ministers to affirm a demand to treat the question on a stand-alone basis.  This notwithstanding, pressure to subsume the cotton issue in the general agriculture negotiations had been relentless.  In view of this pressure, and in the spirit of showing flexibility to move the negotiations forward, the West African cotton producing countries had now agreed to include the issue within the agriculture negotiations.

According to Amb.  Mehou, a paper to this effect has been tabled in the WTO outlining the three concerns which need to be addressed in order that the issue was not marginalised and forgotten within the main agriculture negotiations.  These concerns included a concrete commitment to resolve the cotton issue on an urgent and fast track basis; a precise calendar for dismantling the cotton subsidies provided by developed countries; and the establishment of a fund and other effective measures to fully take into account the developmental aspects of the cotton problem.

He added, in coming forward with this approach, the West African cotton countries had shown a high level flexibility, and expected their partners to respond in kind.  Unfortunately, however, no response had been forthcoming so far from the partners.  

In the view of the Amb. Mehou, far from any positive response to their proposals, the progress of the negotiations so seemed to confirm the fears at the basis of their earlier insistence of the cotton being treated on a stand-alone basis.  In apparent reference to the discussions earlier in the day during the Heads of Delegations meeting, the Ambassador stated that with the mainstreaming of cotton in agriculture, the risk was materialising of the issue being diluted and forgotten, together with the fate of the millions of small peasant producers whose livelihood depended upon a just resolution of the issue.  At the meeting of the HOD, there was hardly any mention of the fate of cotton in all reports presented on progress of negotiations so far, and it was left to Amb.  Mehou to remind the gathering that the issue was still outstanding.

The Trade Minister of Benin, Fatiou Akplogan made it clear that the proposal submitted by the Cotton countries on how to deal with the issue in the context of the agriculture negotiations should be understood as a proposal for negotiation, rather than as a unequivocal commitment.  He explained that this was in response to concerns raised by the developed country cotton subsidisers to the effect that they faced internal constraints which prevented from dealing with the cotton issue outside the agriculture negotiations. 

Minister Akplogan stated further that this meant that the West African cotton countries, together with countries of Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, as well as their allies, expected a meaningful response from the other side.  Such a response should state unambiguously that issue would be dealt with in an “ambitious and swift” manner, recalling the phrase used by the Heads of States at the recent G8 meeting.  However, that this response had so far not been forthcoming.  The Minister further stated that he had, together with colleagues from Chad, and Mali,  met with Tim Grosser, the Chair of the Agriculture negotiating group on June 27, prior to Grosser issuing his agriculture text, and had envisaged a commitment in the text in line with their demands, but were disappointed.

The Senegalese Trade Minister,  Mr Ousmane Ngong, stressed that the position on cotton reflected political will and corresponding decision at the highest political level of the Heads of State these countries with the solidarity of their counterparts, and that the cotton problem was not unique to the four West African countries alone.  He said the situation of cotton producers in Africa had worsened from last year when the issue first came to prominence, with the  cotton production in the United States having multiplied two-fold, with equally multiplying consequences for the depression of world prices for cotton, and making the situation of poor cotton even more precarious.  In this context, it was difficult for the countries to accept the cotton issue being subsumed in the agriculture negotiations if the proposals put forward were not met.

As to whether the West African countries would refuse to sign to a July package that did not satisfy their demands,  Beninois trade Minister Akplogan stated that they were open to negotiate but were not prepared to accept the death of thousands of peasants as the price of a deal.