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West African farmers pawns in WTO chess game

On a trip to Argentina a few years ago, I was standing in a soybean field listening to a group of U.S. farmers commiserate with the Argentine grower about a weed problem he was experiencing.

After a few minutes, the ag attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires began shepherding the U.S. farmers back to the bus. As soon as we were out of earshot, the attaché admonished them about trying to help people who were among their fiercest competitors.

The U.S. producers looked a little sheepish, but did the same thing with other farmers later in the trip. Since then, I've seen the scenario repeated in other locations on other junkets.

That's why it's particularly galling when Oxfam International or European Union lackeys accuse U.S. cotton farmers of deliberately trying to keep growers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali or other West African cotton-producing countries in poverty.

Almost every farmer I know has been willing to share what he knew with other farmers, and I expect there are growers who would travel to Benin or Chad to work with those farmers if they weren't so busy trying to keep their own heads above water.

The Africans need help, judging from comments by Gary Adams, the National Cotton Council's vice president of economic and policy analysis, at the NCC's Beltwide Conferences. Adams said West Africa's yields have remained flat over the last decade while yields in the rest of the world have risen by 150 pounds per acre.

But the real shame about their plight is that they have become pawns in the international chess match being played out in the Doha Development Round negotiations of the WTO — and victims of government officials who siphon off 17 to 18 cents per pound from sales of their cotton.

The latest bashing of the U.S. cotton program in Hong Kong came about because of the European Union's efforts to deflect attention from its failure to make a creditable response to U.S. proposals.

After French President Jacques Chirac refused to accept any more reductions in tariffs or subsidies to French farmers, EU spokesmen — aided by “experts” from Oxfam — began stepping up their criticism of the U.S. cotton program.

Instead of an agreement providing increased market access, WTO leaders produced a draft text clearly more aimed at wiping out the U.S. cotton program than liberalizing world agricultural trade.

While other members were denouncing the U.S. cotton program, leaders of the West African countries were sitting in the negotiations, smiling like Cheshire cats about being able to divert attention from their own greed and ineptitude.

“It's the leaders of the governments of the West African countries that are breaking the backs of African cotton farmers,” said an NCC official. “And they're the ones sitting in the room urging the anti-U.S. cotton folks on. How the NGOs and the EU and other governments can continue to turn a blind eye to what these leaders are doing to their own people is beyond comprehension.”

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