woensdag 24 november 2010
dinsdag 16 november 2010
Last Sunday I read an astonishing article in the Observer. About the tough matter of our fashion habits and what's behind that.
We all like our own style, we like to change our look somewhat every season and change into brand new. Some people even buy clothes every week. Possible because of incredibly low prices. A cotton short sleeve t-shirt of € 4,95 at H&M is normal to most people. Let's buy 4 different colours, and just dump them after 4 washings!
But think about the route until it's in your closet:
Cotton has been seeded, grown and harvested. Then it's transported to a mill and prepared for spinning. Spun, dyed and transported to a clothes factory. Cut to the design, sewed into a dozen different sizes, labelled, packed and transported to the shops all over the world. Put on display in the shop and waiting to be sold. Still; the price is € 4,95!
Who is being mistreated, wrong out and underpayed?
First the cotton farmers. They are farming all over the world. The ones in the USA and Europe though are receiving millions of subsidies. This causes an enourmous overproduction, a rise of 'disposable 'fashion such as the t-shirts mentioned above and an artificial lowering of wholesale prices for cotton.
Now read the story from The Observer by Elizabeth Day:
From a distance, the cotton field appears to be a single patch of colour stretching to the horizon, its thickets of foliage merging into a dense blanket of green. It is only when you get closer that you notice the other colours: the brownish tangle of twigs and weeds and the balls of cotton ready for harvest.
As you walk to the edge of the field, you begin to make out the pickers: men in yellow overalls, shoulders stooped forward, plastic sacks hanging from their waistbands. They work silently, breaking off the buds by hand with smooth, quick efficiency as the afternoon sun beats down.
Closer still and you can see the tall silhouette of Moussa Doumbia, 45 years old, father of nine and a cotton farmer from the village of Mafélé in Mali, west Africa. He is bent over, wearing a dirty beige shirt, fingers snapping together as if keeping time with some syncopated, internal rhythm. After a while, he holds out his hand, revealing several balls of bright white fluff.
This is the cotton fibre that will be sent abroad to be processed, eventually ending up in the T-shirts, skirts and jackets that hang in our high street shops. But Moussa has no sense of pride in his work. "I don't want my children to be cotton farmers," he says, his voice emotionless. Why not? He gives a short, bitter laugh. "Because they will have no future."
Despite the fact that cotton prices are running at a 15-year high after crops in China and Pakistan were hit by floods earlier this year, Moussa lives on the brink of poverty, the victim of an iniquitous global trading system. There are some 16,000 cotton farmers like Moussa in Mali, a country so impoverished it is ranked 160th out of 169th in the United Nations Human Development Index. Life expectancy here is just 49.
A landlocked, semi-desert nation, Mali depends on cotton for its survival. Half of its export revenues come from cotton – it is the second-largest producer in Africa after Egypt – and it is estimated that more than 3.2 million Malians, 40% of the country's rural population, depend on the crop for their livelihoods.
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 has been left to the charitable sector to pick up the pieces. The Fairtrade Foundation has been working in west Africa for the past five years. It has introduced a minimum price for its growers that covers the cost of sustainable production plus a premium equivalent to 4p per kilogram, used to fund reinvestment and community projects, such as schools, clinics and wells.
But the organisation has struggled to make inroads in the UK. Fair trade cotton still makes up only 1-2% of the domestic retail market and last year sales actually dropped 35%. The recession is part of the problem; for years, Fairtrade has concentrated on T-shirts priced higher than most chain-store options, and with less money to spend, consumers are reluctant to pay extra. We have become used to disposable fashion and lazy in our habits. Corporate buyers are unwilling to commit to bulk orders where there is little demand. And farmers such as Moussa, at the bottom of the supply chain, have been horribly failed.
Now Fairtrade is encouraging up-and-coming designers to use fair trade cotton in higher-end clothes, which buyers expect to pay more for. "We've got to move on from the idea that fair trade cotton is all about the basic white T-shirt," says Rachel Hearson, head of Fairtrade's commercial relations team. "People in the UK are having a tough time, but perhaps they will begin to think, 'There's someone in the developing world having a tough time too.' It's about developing that feeling of affinity with the producer."
It is hard to ignore that sense of affinity when someone such as Moussa is standing in front of you. Moussa, who is not a fair trade farmer, did not even know that US subsidies existed. He greets the news with a despondent equanimity, as though he is accustomed to disappointment. "It's really unfair because we cannot get a good price for our cotton on the international market. Life is hard."
The injustice is exacerbated because the American economy does not rely on cotton to anything like the same extent. In Mali, cotton is such a valuable commodity it is known as "white gold". According to Vince Cable, the business secretary, the elimination of global subsidies would raise cotton farmers' incomes in sub-Saharan Africa by 30%. That would make a substantial difference to producers such as Moussa.
When the sun goes down, Moussa takes me back to his home, a mud hut overlooked by the sprawling branches of a large mango tree. A slow fire is burning in the makeshift stove outside his house. Inside, his wife is preparing dinner, pounding maize in a wooden bowl with a long-handled stick. Moussa's children stare at me silently, their mouths open, with uncertain expressions on their faces.
Sitting down on a low bench in front of the fire, Moussa takes a strip of paracetamol tablets from his shirt pocket. "I have a headache all the time," he explains. "Working with the pesticides makes you sick; it makes your head sore, your stomach ache." He tells me that a packet of eight paracetamol tablets costs him CFA400 (52p). So he has to sell two kilos of cotton to earn enough money to buy a single packet? Moussa nods. Why does he not become a fair-trade producer, I wonder, or start growing organic cotton, which fetches a higher price? "At the moment, I don't have enough manpower or time," he says. "It takes a lot of effort, a lot of commitment."
A small boy emerges from the shadows, his gait slightly unbalanced, wearing a pair of raggedy shorts. "This is the one who was sick last month," says Moussa, pushing him forward. "The one who almost died." The boy looks at me with big, doleful eyes, then turns away, scared, and hides behind his father's legs. Somewhere close by a baby starts to cry. Tomorrow, Moussa will get up with the sunrise and start his long day's work all over again.
Some 20 miles away, Daouda Samake sits in a metal-framed chair outside his family home in the tiny village of N'Tentou, Kouroulamini, his eyes squinting in the early morning sun. The ground around us is dry and dusty, the parched earth scattered with goat droppings and chicken feathers. In the background, his three youngest children are playing, rushing around in bare feet and hand-me-down clothes. His fourth child, he tells me proudly, is at school.
"I used to have a lot of problems," Daouda says, pushing up the sleeves of his checked white shirt and gesturing with his hands for emphasis. "I didn't have enough money to pay the fees to send my children to school or to buy them food. Now I can. That makes me proud." He gives a small smile, half-embarrassed by the confession.
Daouda is one of the luckier ones. The general secretary of an organic cotton farming co-operative based in the village of Madina, he has seen first-hand the benefits that come from working with fair trade. "We can work together to make the picking lighter and quicker in the field," he says. "We can help each other. I feel more like I am part of the community. It has really changed life in the village. Before, we didn't have any school or health centre or wells but since fair trade, we've been able to build all this."
The American subsidies, he says, are "really discouraging. Many of our cotton farmers have given up because they cannot get enough money for their crop". In fact, the Mali government estimates that 16,100 hectares of farmland were abandoned this year – almost double the amount in 2009.
"It makes me sad because it's unjust," Daouda continues. "Instead of giving these grants, why not take the time to get all the world's cotton producers together and discuss the problem?"
It is a fair question. But, depressingly, efforts to tackle these glaring inequalities have faltered. Next year marks 10 years since the launch of the World Trade Organisation's Doha Development Round, a process of talks held in the aftermath of 9/11 that were intended to lower trade barriers and reduce poverty, the seedbed of terrorism. At the time, the west African cotton farmers of Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso and Chad were held up as the most vivid example of trade injustice. But a decade later, the plight of the so-called "Cotton Four" continues to be ignored, despite the US subsidies being ruled discriminatory by the WTO in 2008.
When later I meet Ahmadou Abdoulaye Diallo, minister of industry, investment and commerce in his office in the capital, Bamako, he presses home the point that Mali's cotton farmers "are not asking for a favour. All we're asking for is an equal market for the whole world. We're asking that the rules be kept by both the weak and the strong. At the moment, the weak respect the rules and the strongest don't. That is unacceptable. We can't construct world peace while there is trade injustice."
Does he believe that the problems facing cotton producers and the existence of American subsidies will fuel resentment amongst Mali's rural poor? "If things don't change, people are finally going to do stupid things," he replies. In northern Mali, there are already pockets of radical Islamic activity connected to al-Qaida.
Then there are the threats posed to farmers such as Moussa and Daouda by climate change. Last year, Mali experienced a severe drought that stalled cotton production because, unlike the irrigated cotton fields of America or Europe, Malian producers depend entirely on natural rainfall.
"It is a big problem," says Daouda. "The change in climate makes us worried because it can lead to unexpected results: you never know what kind of crop you will get, whether you will get rain. If it continues this way, farmers will be poorer and poorer."
As a result, cotton production in Mali has dropped sharply in recent years – from 620,600 tonnes in 2004 to 232,947 tonnes in 2009 – which has a knock-on effect: an individual farmer with a decreasing income cannot scrabble together enough money to buy medicines or to send his children to school and communities begin to collapse. If children are not educated, they, too, will end up toiling in the cotton fields; in fact, many of them already do.
One cotton farmer I meet, Daouda Diamara, 38, has at least six children under the age of 10 working in his fields – some of them are his own; some are the offspring of his father's second marriage. As we talk, the children emerge sporadically from a field scattered with white buds, hoisting full sacks of cotton on to a rudimentary scale rigged up to a nearby tree. When they return to the picking, their heads disappear from view – many are too short to be able to see above the plants.
"I want this to change," the farmer says, arms crossed, head bowed as he talks. He has patches sewn on to his threadbare trousers and his shoes are falling apart at the soles. "I am going to start growing organic because then I can get a better price and then I can look after my family."
Next year, he says, he hopes to become one of the 1,600 fair trade cotton producers in Mali. Fair trade co-operatives have sprouted up in rural areas, providing farmers with access to loans, technical advice and agricultural training. Although the Fairtrade Foundation does not insist on organic production, it does encourage more sustainable methods, which brings long-term benefits both to the quality of the soil and the health of the farmer. There are more tangible advantages too: in 2007, the fair-trade price for a kilo of cotton was, on average, 46% higher than the norm.
The fair trade premium is then ploughed back into the local community. In the hamlet of Soron, a new well provides fresh water. In the village of Brian, the school now has textbooks, chairs and desks. In Mafélé, where the women used to give birth in their huts by the light of an electric torch, there is now a maternity clinic. "More babies survive now and fewer women die in childbirth," says the midwife, Solona Bagayoko, whose salary is paid using fair-trade profits. "We give vaccinations for polio, measles, yellow fever and meningitis. This clinic has changed women's lives."
More women, too, are becoming cotton farmers under the fair trade initiative, because they do not rely on pesticides and fertilisers, the sale of which is controlled by men. Out of 220 producers in the Madina co-operative, 100 are women.
Bandia Doumbia, a 36-year-old mother of six, is one of them. A tall, thin woman with a ready smile and wearing a purple printed sarong, Bandia remembers a time before she started growing organic fair trade cotton, when she did not have enough money to take her sick child to hospital. "There was no clean water when the pumps broke down in the village because there was no money to repair them," she says. "It was also difficult to get enough money for clothes. I couldn't look after my family. I was very poor."
Now, things have improved. "My children are in school, I get a good price for my cotton and I've also learned a lot of skills. I have become very happy – so much so, that next year, I am going to grow a bigger crop."
Yet despite the good it does, fair trade attracts its share of criticism. In the past, it has been accused of skewing free-market forces and, earlier this month, the Institute of Economic Affairs suggested the fair-trade premium was of negligible value for the world's poorest. But in Mali, it is hard not to feel such arguments are crudely abstract. After all, American subsidies already make a mockery of the idea of a "free market" and speaking to people such as Daouda or Bandia, you rapidly realise the gains that come from fair trade are not only the kind that can be drawn up on a balance sheet of profit and loss.
There is something in both Daouda and Bandia's manner that is lacking from Moussa's worn-down demeanour. It is there in the smallest actions: the slight straightening of the shoulders, the smallest curve of a smile or the fact that they look you in the eye as they speak. It feels as though Daouda and Bandia believe in their future. By contrast, what I see in Moussa is the absence of hope, a lack of faith that anything will ever change or that he will one day be able to shape his own future.
"I have to believe that God will find a solution," he says as I leave his village, shaking his hand for the final time. The sun has set and the silhouette of his mud hut is barely visible through the thickening darkness. As he walks back towards the flickering embers of the fire, he turns and adds, almost as an afterthought: "Who else will?"
...images from www.fairtrade.net/home.html