MALI: Cotton growers struggle against poverty

BAMKO: Mali, is struggling to renovate its labor-intensive cotton sector to keep growers out of poverty. Cotton growers get as little as 160 West African CFA francs per kilogram of cotton - about 30 cents;sources said here on April 03.

In the southern town of Kita, some growers, are getting a little more, due to a small scale fair-trade initiative, whereby a few foreign buyers guarantee a higher price.

It is Africa's biggest cotton producer. European and American cotton producers receive huge subsidies to offset their high cost of production.  Following complaints from countries like Mali, the World Trade Organization agreed to phase these out by 2013.

Until then, government officials and scientists are pushing for experimentation with genetically-modified seeds. But, for some Malians, this option would make matters worse, not better.

The alter-globalization movement as it calls itself is led here by former Culture Minister Aminata Traore.

She says Africans have been burned (been taken advantage of) over and over. She says she is proud resistance is beginning against what she views as the new evil -multinationals like American-based Monsanto, allegedly pushing to create new dependencies with genetically modified seeds.

There are more pressing problems which need to be addressed, such as improving financial practices or dealing with possible privatization of the cotton sector.

The technology might work on large-scale farms in the United States, Australia or Brazil, but it would not be beneficial in the context of Mali's mostly small farms.

Producing cotton requires lots of spraying, and using bio-pesticides, although beneficial to the environment, reduces productivity.

The idea behind genetically-modified seeds is to reduce the need for pesticides and improving productivity.

Mali's Institute of Rural Economy suggests that, at the very least, research on genetically modified technology, commonly referred to as GM, should be allowed.

It says the cotton industry is entering a crucial transition, with nearly a third of the world's cotton already genetically modified. GM experimentation is already being conducted in neighboring Burkina Faso and that Mali should soon follow, or else it will be left behind.

It accuses those against the new technology of being what he calls ideologues - basing themselves on unreliable information and propping up activists at the community level.

He also does not agree with their argument that cotton growers will become dependent of multinationals. He says special seeds will initially be bought, but afterwards, he believes these could be adapted to local conditions and appropriated.
Mali's cotton growers are seeking better prices. Another target of the anti-GM group has been the United States Agency for International Development.

The U.S. government agency faces repeated accusations of buying off scientists and government employees with trips and training abroad to make them amenable to GM prospects.

American officials deny this, saying their role is to provide information.

They were not available to be recorded for this report, but said the agency is working with Malians on studying possible improvements to the cotton sector and agriculture, including, but not exclusively, genetically modified seeds. 

Companies like Monsanto say they are looking for new markets but that, in Africa, they also reduce their profit margins to help fight poverty.

These arguments ring hollow for the anti-GM group. They would like a revival of the cotton sector to come from within their own borders.

They say another shame is that Malians produce few clothes, locally, like at this traditional factory, depending instead on used clothes sent by aid groups and resold in Africa.

Experts agree cotton and everything that revolves around it is a passionate issue in Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, despite having more than 600,000 hectares cultivating what was once known as white gold.

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Added: April 4, 2006 Source: Agencies
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