Ouagadougou — Some call it "white gold"; but, the ever-falling price of cotton means that this nickname may end up being more ironic than complimentary. In Burkina Faso cotton producers are, for the first time, facing the prospect of a third consecutive drop in the price of the commodity.
From 42 U.S. cents in 2003-2004, the price of a kilogramme of cotton fell to 35 cents in 2004-2005, and 33 cents for the current season (2005-2006). It could fall to 30 cents in 2006-2007, according to the Burkina Fibre and Textile Company (Société des fibres et textiles du Burkina, Sofitex), the leading cotton firm in this West African country.
The crisis is widely linked to the subsidies received by producers in rich nations over past years.
According to global aid agency Oxfam, American cotton farmers were paid about a billion dollars in subsidies between 2004 and 2005 for instance, enabling them to undercut competitors in Africa -- and causing a decline in cotton prices.
While American producers were being subsidised, cotton farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lost 450 million dollars. Approximately 20 million people in the region who depend on cotton for their livelihood became poorer, not because they worked less, but because the market was rigged against them.
As cotton prices fall the cost of fertilizer in increasing, said Drissa Fayama -- a cotton producer in Siniena, western Burkina Faso.
"We're planning to stop producing cotton for a little while, or cut down on production to grow maize and sorghum," he told IPS, adding that he now planned to sow two hectares with cotton instead of four. "I must be able to feed my family, and my two children will not go to school on an empty stomach."
Still, a 100 kilogramme sack of maize currently sells for about five dollars on the local market, or less than one cent per kilogramme, against 33 cents for a kilogramme of cotton. A lack of organised channels through which cereals can be sold may also discourage certain small-scale farmers from going the same route as Fayama.
The use of genetically modified (GM) cotton could offer an alternative, by enabling farmers to earn more through growing more.
According to specialist estimates, GM cotton allows farmers to produce from 2,500 to 3,000 kilogrammes of cotton per hectare, against an average of 1,000 kilogrammes at present. In addition, GM cotton is cheaper to cultivate, leading to savings of 72 dollars a hectare. Authorities plan widespread use of the modified cotton in 2008.
Faced with a shortfall of over 50 million dollars during the past growing season, Sofitex is also planning to build three more processing factories to increase its competitiveness, amongst other measures, at a cost of millions of dollars. Cotton farmers hold upwards of 30 percent of stock in Sofitex, as well as 20 percent and 10 percent respectively in the two country's other cotton companies, Faso Cotton (Faso coton) and Socomat.
"If we do not want to disappear, we must increase the capital outlay," says Georges Yaméogo, director of production at the firm. "If the cotton disappears, there will be a social crisis."
Sofitex expects production of 700,000 tonnes of cotton this year, against anticipated national production of 800,000 tonnes.
Certain Burkinabé cotton farmers had hoped that their situation would improve as a result of World Trade Organisation negotiations conducted under the Doha Development Agenda. The Doha round, which takes its name from the Qatari capital where it was launched in 2001, was intended to provide developing countries with their proper share of international trade -- partly through cuts in agricultural subsidies. However, the talks collapsed in July.
François Traoré, president of the National Union of Burkina Producers (Union nationale des producteurs du Burkina), fears that while older farmers will continue in the face of these difficulties -- the younger generation may not.
"We must expect that young people will leave," said Traoré, who is also president of the Association of African Cotton Producers (Association des producteurs de coton africains).
Nonetheless, "I continue to hope, as president," he told IPS, noting of the current trade arrangements that they were "a commercial system organised by the major powers of the world and tailored to suit them; so in order for African countries to take their place (in the market), patience and struggle are needed."