By  on April 20, 2005

GENEVA — In a bid to help struggling West African cotton-producing countries, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson on Tuesday called for wealthier nations to provide duty-free access to cotton grown in that region by 2007.

Mandelson said that, during the July summit of the G-8 economic powers, he plans to push world leaders to commit to fast-tracking cotton within the agricultural talks of the World Trade Organization. Key cotton growers in West Africa, including Benin, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali, have grown increasingly vocal in recent years, complaining that they are not benefiting from the trade liberalization efforts of the WTO.

During a keynote speech at a summit on African issues being held this week in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, Mandelson called on advanced countries to “fast track cotton” and said: “Cotton should be first in the queue.”

Cotton has come to the fore of trade issues in recent years because poor African countries argue that it’s one of the few sectors of the global economy where they enjoy any comparative advantages — namely, ready land and low-cost workers.

The four nations Mandelson singled out account for about 5 percent of global cotton production.

Poor nations have been complaining loudly that subsidies paid by the U.S. give American farmers an unfair economic advantage and make it impossible for the African nations to compete in the world market. In March, the WTO ruled the U.S. Step Two cotton program, which included $2 billion in annual payments, broke global trade rules.

Differences between poor and rich countries over cotton contributed to the collapse of the Cancún trade summit in September 2003.

Mandelson cited World Bank estimates that cotton support measures paid by economic powers reduce world prices by 10 to 15 percent and said: “At the moment, we are probably witnessing the sharpest drop in these prices in absolute terms since 1985.”

The price of cotton has fallen by 30 percent over the past two years, dropping below 50 cents a pound.

Roman Benicchio, trade analyst with the antipoverty advocacy group Oxfam International, said he “welcomed” Mandelson’s call, but noted that it wouldn’t take effect until 2007 — after the current round of WTO talks concludes.Several trade ambassadors from poor WTO member countries, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, complained that the proposal was not enough and said they want to see tangible results by July.

A U.S. trade official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “We’re working with others concerned about the cotton trade and, in particular, countries in Africa to address their concerns and promote development.”

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