Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Non-essential reading on cotton

Because what needs to be said has mostly already been said.

Try this, anyway.

I can't vouch for the rest...
With that, I think I’ve gotten most of my thoughts on cotton out of the way. One perk is that my friends have been patiently asking me to shut up on the subject, and truthfully, cotton had been out of my life for a long, long time. But some people don’t learn – especially not the Congress of the United States, who is apparently debating the Farm Bill 2007 and not giving too much thought about reducing any of the subsidies. You can’t say they weren’t warned.

The problem with covering cotton is that it gives proof to newspaper editors that there is yet another imperfect window from which to view upon our pretty Africa. (The new face of African poverty: cotton farmers picking by hand.) The latest batch of cotton stories comes around just in time before newspapers were running out of wire service stories about crazed villagers burning women who were witches, or female genital mutilation or some strange new case of lupus in Mozambique. The funny + sad thing is that some paper in Kansas got the photos screwed up for the lupus and burning witch story. I wonder how many noticed?

In the newsworthy department, the good thing about cotton is that it affects more than 12 people. Make that 10 million folks spread across state lines. In Burkina, you can’t say cotton isn’t king when everyone from the field hands to the bar owners surely know when cotton checks come in. The parties go on for days – just like when the new batch of meth hits small northwestern towns. (And you wonder why none of the kids never seem to go to school.)

The bad thing about the latest preponderance of cotton stories is it’s the lefties who mostly get it all wrong. I usually have a pretty healthy streak of vengeance (my mid-western upbringing), but I tire of the sloganeering around the unproven fact that falling U.S. subsidies will lead to better lives in West Africa. Better lives for whom? The yahoos who park the cotton company trucks in bars throughout the cotton belt? (They are worse than the phone company guys – but at least those guys are good at making themselves look busy; it’s just too bad they not busy working. They’re busy hauling firewood to sell in town.)

IRIN, the UN news service, is always very quick to jump on the anti-U.S. subsidies bandwagon (as if that’s stepping out on the ledge of intellectual appraisal), and they’ll let that mouthpiece from the Burkina cotton union speak until the cows come home, but they’ll never cast a skeptical eye towards the union itself (which shouldn’t call itself a union since it lacks any shall we say adversarial aspects.) nor Softitex or any of their shenanigans in the field.

This reminds me of a story I heard. A town in southern Burkina has now gotten away from cotton after the local Sofitex agent was repeatedly threatened and eventually smacked around by farmers tired of waiting for the Sofitex truck to pick up their crops. After the beating, the Sofitex trucks came a few months later – we’re talking March/April – and the farmers vowed never to grow the crop again. The person who told me this said the fields are mostly empty, a very eerie sight indeed.

Another story: Said mouthpiece of the cotton union has an American cotton symbol on the front of his huge 4x4. I thought that was pretty funny when I saw it. (You want to know where the increasing profits are going to go, check out how the cotton union decks itself in next season. It’s like when your white trash neighbors knock over some small town bank. Everybody knows they did it, but the cops are just waiting for them to park their new BMW – paid in cash – on the front lawn to see if they’re that dumb. They usually are. We’ll see what the cotton union comes up with next.)

One thing the piece failed to mention: Cotton farmers as a whole provide a little better for their families in the food security department. They have, by and large, more money to buy corn and other cereals. This most likely means they are richer – and answers questions as to why cotton is popular. To me, it’s still a moot point. If everybody starts growing cotton, that doesn’t take away the other issues facing the crops: environmental damage, credit problems, monoculture.

Anecdotally, cotton farmers seem richer. But they still have to eat – and someone has to grow corn and sorghum.

With that, let it end. At least until next year.

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