The West African Republic of Mali is
situated in the arid Sahel region, where the southern edge of the
Sahara meets the sprawling savannahs. Insidious deforestation and
soil erosion has accentuated the severity of the dry season,
bringing acute droughts and dangerous dust storms to the
predominantly rural population. Perpetual famine, raging epidemics
and contaminated groundwater supplies have taken enormous tolls on
average life spans. It is in these onerous conditions that the
Malian farmer toils the parched land to cultivate the
nation’s principal cash crop — cotton.

Sam Singer

On a daily basis, workers of all walks of life endure the
scorching cotton fields and congested processing plants in
anticipation of their meager compensations. In 2003, the average
laborer in Mali earned an astonishing 82 cents per day and
accumulated an annual income of $300. These extraordinarily cheap
wages, combined with a relatively conducive farming climate have
allowed Mali to export high volumes of cotton at prices close to
the market floor.

One third of Mali’s population relies on cotton exports as
their primary source of income. Minimal earnings from cotton
production complement subsistence farming to aid Malians in their
battle against resource scarcity and destitution. Accordingly,
poverty levels have been strongly correlated with the health of the
cotton market. Between 1993 and 1998, a period of price stability
and steady production outputs in Mali, poverty levels decreased by
at least 8 percent in cotton-growing districts. One of the
world’s 10 poorest nations, Mali’s undeveloped
infrastructure has stalled any significant growth and created a
dangerous reliance on commodity exports to sustain the well being
of an extremely anemic economy. Already severely impoverished, the
fate of Mali’s continued existence dangles from the fickle
thread of global demand.

Meanwhile, back in the heartland of America, state-of-the-art
irrigation pumps shower acres of cotton while satellite-guided
combines roam the fields, harvesting dozens of crop rows at a time.
Indeed, the face of modern day agriculture in the United States is
a far cry from its pitiable self-portrait imbedded within the 2002
Farm Bill. The heartwarming image of the self-sufficient farmer,
plow in hand, which once personified the U.S. agriculture industry
has been replaced by Agro-conglomerates and their fleets of John
Deere tractors. What stimulated this rapid innovation and
consolidation? Was it the market’s demonstration of
comparative advantage and production efficiency? Quite the
opposite. U.S. cotton farmers are leaning on a 1.5 billion dollar
government crutch – a state-controlled respirator for an
industry that should have died from natural causes decades ago.

Government subsidies allow the U.S.’s 25,000 cotton farms
to compete (and in most cases out-compete) with naturally cheaper
foreign exports. Since grant distribution is more often than not
determined by output levels, it is the large agro-businesses, not
the individual farmers, who collect the majority of the funds.
Combine inexpensive production costs with convenient export
subsidies, and you have high volumes of discounted U.S. cotton
drowning foreign markets and putting downward pressure on global
prices. This market dynamic was responsible for stripping Mali of
$43 million in export revenues in 2001.

Doesn’t hit home? Trade justice and references to
international ethics too pedestrian? For those who feel that the
conventional arguments against farm subsidies are inadequate or
exhausted, consider this: despite widespread poverty, Mali remains
a functioning democracy. Freedom House characterizes the
country’s electoral process as competitive and participatory
— a legitimately fair system. One more thing: Mali is at
least 80 percent Muslim. In the eyes of the U.S., these two traits
make Mali a global prototype for the successful synthesis of
democracy and Islam — a citadel of hope in an increasingly
volatile region.

Yet a U.S.-led campaign against Islamic fundamentalism, a dogma
that is fueled by economic hardship and its attendant acrimony,
cannot credibly coexist with internal policies that continue to
drive developing nations towards the margins of poverty. Perhaps an
obstructed War on Terror will be the catalyst needed to draw the
attention this issue deserves.

Singer can be reached at

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