It's not easy farming cotton in Africa. Just ask Bafing Diarra, 47, who owns slightly less than 25 acres near the village of Korokoro in Mali in West Africa. His headaches are endless: low- yielding seeds from Mali's government-controlled cotton company, boll weevils that this season resisted five applications of pesticides; capricious weather; a lack of equipment, which forces him to pick his cotton by hand in the scorching heat; even monkeys, which occasionally get into the fields and pry open the bolls to get at the sweet water trapped inside.
By far, the biggest problem Diarra faces, though, isn't environmental or even in Africa. It is 5,000 miles away: the $3 billion or more the U.S. pays its 25,000 cotton farmers in subsidies every year. Washington uses taxpayer money to guarantee American farmers a price--currently about 72¢ per lb.--whether it rains or bakes and no matter what happens on the world market. By contrast, in 2003, when Mali's cotton farmers earned 42¢ per lb., Diarra says he made a profit of $480, which he used to buy four cows and send his children to school. In a bad year such as this one, when Diarra expects to make just 32¢ per lb., he will lose money and fall further into debt with the government cotton company.
That sinking price makes a huge difference in West Africa, where more than 10 million people depend directly on cotton to pay for food, school fees and housing. The crop provides Burkina Faso and Mali with half of all their export earnings; in Benin it accounts for 75%. "If there is no cotton growing in Mali, Mali doesn't work," says Demba Kébé, an adviser to that country's Minister of Agriculture.
U.S. cotton farmers aren't the only ones feeding at the government welfare trough. According to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington lobby group, last year the U.S. doled out more than $12 billion in subsidies to its farmers on everything from corn to sugar to tobacco. The Europeans spew out subsidies, shelling out $53 billion. With cotton, as with other crops, all those subsidies distort global trade by encouraging U.S. farmers to produce more, which drags down world cotton prices and hurts farmers such as Diarra. "I don't blame the Americans, but I want them to allow me to make a profit," he says, sitting on a broken metal chair with his son Diakaridia, 3, wriggling on his lap. "I want to be able to take care of my family, to be able to feed them, to clothe them and to be independent of anybody."
The latest round of talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO) was supposed to make Diarra's modest wishes come true. Launched in 2001 and named for the Qatari city where the initial meeting was held, the Doha "development" round is intended to thrash out new trade arrangements for agriculture, with a specific focus on reducing the rich world's subsidies and opening Western markets to the developing world's producers. In return, the vision goes, the developing world will allow more access to its service industries, such as insurance and banking.