TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct05/19)

21 October 2005


Two West African Ministers and two leaders of African cotton farmers came to Geneva and made a demand that there be concrete results and not just fancy words to end cotton subsidies in the developed countries. 

They want the action to be taken by the Hong Kong Ministerial conference.  They do not want to be held responsible if the lack of concrete results lead to a failure of the Hong Kong Ministerial.

Below is a report of the press briefing they gave at the WTO.

with best wishes
Martin Khor


African cotton countries demand concrete results at Hong Kong

By Tetteh Hormeku (TWN Africa) Geneva, 19 Oct 2005

Representatives of the West African cotton-producing countries have demanded a concrete resolution of the cotton problem at the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference, as well as a clear indication now that this will be the case, if they are to have any stake in outcomes of the Conference.

Speaking to the press at the WTO on Wednesday, the West African countries said that in the absence of such concrete results, the developed countries whose policies have led to the cotton crisis will be responsible if the cotton countries are unable to accept an overall deal in Hong Kong.

The message was delivered by the Ministers of Trade and Industry of Mali and Chad, the President of the Burkina Faso National Union of Cotton Producers, and the President of the Cotton Producers Association of Africa.

Introducing the issue at the press conference, the Malian Minister, Mr Choguel Kokalla Maiga, said that the African cotton producers have no choice but to demand a resolution of the cotton problem.

Resolution of their problem is their single interest in the on-going negotiations, compared to other countries which have multiple interests that can be traded off. He explained that their countries are dependent on the single commodity of cotton, whereas the EU and the US have other products available to them, and they also have the means to resolve the crisis arising from their policies.

Explaining the strategic role of cotton in their economies, Maiga stated that cotton constituted 40% of total exports of their countries, 60% of agricultural exports, and up to 10% of their GDP.

The minister recalled that when they brought up the cotton issue in Cancun, there had been no solution. Since Cancun, there had been a lot of discussion and workshops on the cotton issue, but again there was no progress up to now.

In July 2004, as part of the July framework, WTO members agreed to treat the case of cotton specifically, expeditiously and ambitiously. But up to now there is no understanding of what these terms mean, in terms of operationalising them.

Although there were only a few weeks before the Hong Kong Ministerial, there was still no solution.

The principal countries especially the US and EU have all submitted proposals on agriculture, and yet not one of these have even mentioned the case of cotton. "The cotton countries are thus faced with the risk that the Hong Kong Ministerial will offer us only empty words and we will leave empty handed from Hong Kong. This will be unacceptable," he stated.

The cotton countries, therefore, need a clear statement before members arrive at Hong Kong as to how the Hong Kong meeting will address the cotton issue, said the Minister, adding that a concrete and operational resolution to the cotton problem must be part of the decisions taken at Hong Kong, otherwise the countries cannot see how they can have an interest in those decisions.

"We don't want to be held responsible if there is a failure in Hong Kong," he said, adding that the US, EU and other countries had the means to prevent a failure.

Asked whether this meant that the countries are prepared to block a deal in Hong Kong, the Minister explained that it is not up to any particular country to take upon themselves the responsibility to block negotiations. However, a negotiation can be blocked as a result of the failure to find solutions to legitimate problems. "If there is no solution, we cannot see what our interests will be in the negotiations," he reiterated.

He stated further that their countries are being put in the unacceptable situation of having to chose between blocking a deal in Hong Kong or accepting a bad deal. He said that their demands were perfectly legitimate. They were not asking for any special treatment or favours, but simply asking that the rules of the WTO be applied.

Asked further to comment on the US argument that subsidies on cotton were not linked to the production and on the issue of box shifting, the Minister stated that debates about the colours of boxes was interesting as an intellectual exercise but is of little relevance to the cotton countries. "If other farmers (in rich countries) are getting large subsidies, then whatever colour the subsidies are said to be - whether blue or amber or green - makes no difference."

The relevant question, he said, is whether "we can or cannot produce for the international market, due to these subsidies."

Mr. Maiga said the countries' demands are that a clear date be fixed to completely eliminate the subsidies, and that in the meantime, their producers must be compensated for the huge losses they have suffered from the subsidies.

He criticised the big countries for being concerned in the current negotiations with solving their own problems, and then they ask the small countries to accept whatever they have decided. "We can't accept this," he stressed.

Mrs Ngarmbatina Soukate, Minister of Trade and Industry of Chad, stressed that what their countries were looking for in the WTO is the resolution of the cotton issue. "It is our life," she said.

She added that it was important for their countries to know before going to Hong Kong that they will come back with concrete results, otherwise their countries cannot even dare to go to Hong Kong. "We don't want declarations, we need something concrete to give to our farmers," she stressed.

There had been a lot of sympathy in words so far, she added, but no concrete measures to address the issue.

Quoting an African proverb that people who are hungry do not need philosophy but action, she stated that the cotton countries need to be able to explain to their farmers after Hong Kong what the OECD countries are willing to do to reduce their subsidies and what that will mean for the farmers.

"This is why we are here at the WTO, we plead to all concerned to stop beating around the bush and instead tell us what you are going to do."

Ibrahim Malloum, President of the Cotton Producers Association of Africa, drew attention to the fact that cotton produced in West Africa is of the highest quality and had very competitive costs. It was linked to the lives of over 15 million, but unfortunately, instead of leading to the development of the people, cotton has become part of their impoverishment due to the low prices which the producers receive as result of the subsidies paid to cotton producers in the OECD countries.

"In the OECD countries, production is not influenced by market forces, as the farmers get a good price whatever the prices in the market. We are facing unacceptable competition," he said.

He said that at the WTO Cancun meeting, everyone had accepted that their countries had made the moral and legal case for redressing the situation. He reiterated that the cotton countries are asking simply for the rules of the WTO to be applied.

He added that there are four issues to be addressed in Hong Kong: ( 1) urgent action on domestic and export subsidies; ( 2) a date to be fixed for an end to all subsidies; ( 3) a decision to compensate the cotton producers for the huge losses they have suffered as a result of the subsidies, which he estimated as $250 million in direct costs and $1 billion including indirect costs; and ( 4) cotton must be treated outside of agriculture as it is a strategic case.

In a similar vein, Mr Francois Traore, President of the Burkinabe National Association of Cotton Producers, stated that cotton was strategic for the development of their people.

He said the Western countries should be supporting the development of cotton in African countries so that the people can have a livelihood and stay in their own countries. Instead, the Western countries seem to prefer the present situation in which their subsidies destroy the prospects of the African cotton-producing countries, whose people are then forced by circumstances to migrate, and then they are forcibly repatriated.

He stated that it would be better to stay in Hong Kong after the Ministerial than return with an empty hand.