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Column What was once called 'the white gold' is no longer a source of hope

In the past three years, sales of Fairtrade cotton in Europe has fallen – leaving those who produce it without the support needed to build a better future, writes Dunstan Burke.

THE EVER-SMILING Mamadou Diallo is standing in his cotton field in Bundukundi, Senegal. He’s telling me about the hardships of cotton growing: “Most of the work is done manually, with little equipment. Ploughing is done with oxen. It is very hard work. If it rains too much or if rain stops too early, you get a poor yield.” When the cotton is ready it must be harvested quickly by the extended family. It is then brought from the fields to collection points and loaded onto trucks.

I follow the cotton on a dirt track and a bad road to the ginning factory. There I meet Thierno Kante who gives me a proud tour of the plant. “Senegal is known to produce the best cotton in the world. Here, cotton is harvested, transported, ginned, packed and exported without the use of toxic polypropylene which is quite unique. We have become an example to follow for Africa, but also Europe and Asia in terms of quality.”

In a global economy, the small family farms of Senegal compete with hi-tech US and EU cotton agriculture. And yet farmers like Mamadou manage to produce top quality cotton at a lower cost than their northern counterparts. Sadly the price their cotton sells at does not earn them a decent living anymore. As rich countries heavily subsidise their production, the selling price keeps declining. It is now down to a third of its 1975 value in real terms. What was once called the white gold is no longer a source of development in West Africa.

European sales are falling

“Senegal today is still one of the least developed countries in Africa. It has few resources, but has potential nonetheless, thanks to a strong democratic culture and a young and dynamic population” Oumar Bousso, an agricultural engineer, explains to me. “Not everybody has easy access to drinking water and although the government is making huge efforts, not everyone gets access to education either”.

For several years, Mamadou’s cotton has been Fairtrade certified. Fairtrade is a simple idea: the mark on the product is the guarantee for the consumer that the farmer at the start of the chain is getting a fair deal. It includes a minimum price that covers the cost of sustainable production and a premium to invest in community projects. Mamadou tells me: “The premium paid for the roofing of our mosque and for our children’s school stationery. We also gave some money to a neighbouring village to help them build a grain store”.

In the past three years, however, Fairtrade cotton in Europe has not been selling as much. As a result, only half of Mamadou’s cotton is now being sold as Fairtrade, thus halving the premium collected.

When will start doing our bit?

After a long journey through the central red plains scattered with magnificent baobabs I meet again in Dakar with local Anne Kane from Fairtrade International. She visited Ireland for Fairtrade Fortnight last February: “It was a great experience. I was really surprised to see how many people are really aware of the Fairtrade concept. They know where the money is going, and what the producers are using it for and that is very impressive.”

Fairtrade has been working with coffee and cocoa farmers for 25 years now, but is only just starting with cotton in comparison. There are however more cotton farmers than there are coffee and cocoa farmers together. So if the task is huge, so is the potential for millions of farmers. But Fairtrade’s impact will be marginal as long as the clothing industry and consumers do not buy Fairtrade.

Mamadou is doing his fair share of work: growing top quality cotton in extremely adverse conditions. When are we consumers and businesses in Europe going to start doing ours?

Meet Thierno, Oumar, Anne and Mamadou in the magazine section of the Late Lunch on TV3 starting at 3.15 pm on Monday or Tuesday of each week of Fairtrade Fortnight.

Dunstan Burke is certification manager at Fairtrade Ireland. He grew up and studied finance in France before working in investment banking and international transport. He is passionate about fair trade and has worked for Fairtrade Ireland since 2007

Read: World’s biggest food companies ‘failing millions of people’

Column: Our ‘green’ ideals fizzle out in the face of everyday life

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