The Many Faces of Neo-Colonialism – Toxic Jeans and Cotton Subsidies

The brutal form in Lesotho – Robin Hammond’s Toxic Jeans:

Do watch the entire slideshow and while you’re at it, explore Robin Hammond’s entire portfolio. It’s a terrifying and amazing visualization of the dark side of globalization.

And then, there is the “softer” neocolonialism, just as devastating:

“The continuing struggle of cotton growers in the poorest region of the world is highlighted today by a report which reveals the many billions of dollars paid to rival farmers in the biggest economies since international talks began to make trade more fair.

As the Doha trade talks enter their tenth year this week, the Fairtrade Foundation calculates that the US, the European Union, China and India have in that time paid their cotton farmers $47bn (£29bn) in subsidies in total – flooding the international market and pushing down the global price for competitors, especially in west Africa, says the charity.

As a result, farmers in the four biggest cotton producing countries of west Africa are losing out on vital income which would help people in rural areas and pay for roads, schools and other developments to reduce their dependence on aid, it claims.

Introducing the report, The Great Cotton Stitch-up, the business secretary, Vince Cable, quotes an estimate by the charity Oxfam that the subsidies are costing west African cotton farmers and their families millions of dollars a year in potential income. A report by Oxfam in 2002 estimated the lost income at $191m (£118m) each year.

“The current system of subsidies cannot be right and certainly is not fair,” writes Cable. “The principles of Fairtrade need to be integrated and reflected in the global trading system. The UK government is committed to working towards this aim.”

So, let’s not talk again about “free” trade, shall we. This situation is not new. The US and EU have been pushing for the peripheral countries to open themselves to cheaper – because subsidized – agricultural imports, which destroy local agriculture and makes very big food corporations wealthier.

Ultimately, such practices are responsible for the persistent poverty in the periphery:

“Moussa, who started growing cotton 17 years ago, farms two hectares of land, which yield 500-800 kilos a year. Yet despite the quantity and quality of cotton he produces, he is barely able to feed his children.

“Sometimes, the young ones cry because they’re so hungry,” he says, his face impassive. “I become very angry when I’m not able to get enough food for my family. All the time, I feel sad.” Last month, two of his youngest children contracted malaria and his three-year-old son almost died because Moussa couldn’t afford to buy medicine. “That made me very afraid. It makes me feel ashamed because I am the chief of the family but I am not able to protect them. In our culture, this is unacceptable.”

Moussa’s life is being buffeted by forces beyond his control, put into motion by industrialised, wealthy nations thousands of miles from this dry, hot corner of Africa. In the United States, the scale of government support to 25,000 cotton farmers has thrown the international trading system out of kilter. The political lobby for cotton is one of the strongest in US agriculture, a legacy of the post-Depression, dust-bowl era, when embattled farmers had to be helped back on to their feet.

But while America’s economic landscape has changed, the practice has remained: in 2008/2009, cotton producers were awarded $3.1bn (£1.9bn) in subsidies, which, astonishingly, exceeded the market price by around 30%. The EU and China award its farmers similar grants, albeit on a lesser scale.

The result has been overproduction, the rise of fast, disposable fashion and the artificial lowering of world cotton prices. The consequences are felt most deleteriously by the poorest farmers at the end of the supply chain, men such as Moussa, who battle each year to eke out an existence. The price of west African cotton has fallen every year since 2003 and despite the recent spike in prices, there has been a long-term decline in real terms since the 1950s. Today, Moussa sells one kilo of cotton for 185 Central African francs (CFA) – about 24p. That translates to a maximum annual income of just £200.”

It all goes back to the unfair rules of trade set by core countries to their advantage. But hey, if these farmers can’t make money growing cotton, maybe they should go work for a factory that makes jeans, right? Use their comparative advantage: large supply of labor made cheap and kept cheap.

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