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Developing nations are beginning to use the WTO to push back. Brazil, now the world's second biggest cotton exporter after the U.S., last year won a WTO ruling that Washington's cotton subsidies unfairly distorted world trade. A U.S. appeal was denied. And when Congress failed to act on U.S. Department of Agriculture proposals to fix the WTO problem by a September deadline, Brazil, exercising its right under WTO rules to "retaliate," announced that it would no longer honor patents and copyrights on U.S. movies, pharmaceuticals and other items. The U.S. warned Brazil to back off or face the wrath of Congress, but Brazil is seeking $1 billion in damages through the WTO. If the case enters the WTO arbitration process, the U.S. will make a counteroffer.
Despite the ruling, U.S. cotton growers argue that their cotton-support schemes fall within WTO limits. The Cotton Council of America, an industry group, says that blaming U.S. subsidies for low prices oversimplifies the world market and ignores other factors, such as increased production in Central Asia, thanks to political and economic stability, and use of new technologies. Efforts to blame U.S. cotton farmers for West Africa's woes "are misleading and misrepresent the forces at work in world fiber markets," says National Cotton Council (NCC) vice chairman Allen Helms Jr. The NCC says it is prepared to accept subsidy cuts only if other sectors also take a hit--and if the WTO examines support for man-made fibers. "We will oppose any agreement that singles out cotton for unfair, special treatment," Helms told a Senate committee.
West African governments, some of which backed the Brazilian case, say the debate has dragged on for so long that they not only want subsidies to be cut but also need compensation for export-earning losses. "Africans are in a situation that if they don't do anything, it's possible that the cotton sector will disappear," says ministerial adviser Kébé.
Beyond the trade haggling are real human consequences, best seen in elementary schools like the one in the town of Marka Coungo, a few miles from Bafing Diarra's farm. Ba Dienta, head of the school, estimates that enrollment varies as much as 25%, depending on the annual cotton price and the size of the harvest. When farmers make no money from cotton, Dienta says, his students concentrate poorly and fall asleep in class because they're hungry. "Everything is done on cotton money--marriage, debt, babies," he says. "When the price is low, it's a catastrophe."
Nouhoum Sissoko, 40, mayor of Marka Coungo and the biggest cotton producer in the district, says the pressure to accept lower prices every year is relentless. "The [Malian] government told us the low prices are because of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Such partners are making pressure on government, and the government is putting pressure on us," he says, sitting in a thatched meeting room next to the mayor's office. Later, on a tour of his 54 acres planted in cotton, he laughs deeply when told of the subsidies and guarantees American cotton farmers enjoy. "I would like to go there," he says. "Life belongs to them."