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Sunday, 10 October 2004

Pickin' Cotton

I have to admit to struggling with Catch-22. Sometimes I find ‘classic literature’ a bit like cabbage. You know it’s good for you but you’d really rather be eating a mars bar. Anyway, as some respite, I have just read A Painted House by John Grisham. Which I really enjoyed. His descriptions of a poor cotton-growing family in Arkansas were in some ways quite similar to families here – at the mercy of erratic weather conditions and unstable markets, not knowing if they were going to survive from one year to the next etc. But it was his description of the labour they needed to pick the cotton – badly paid illegal Mexican immigrants - that got me thinking again about something I have been mulling over for a while. Just recently I visited a coffee plantation here in Zambia. About six months previously I had a tour of a tea plantation in India. Despite ‘modern advances’ an awful lot of the work involved in producing these commodities still needs to be done by hand. And in the parts where machinery is used, I can’t imagine how anyone could work there, in horrifically high temperatures and incessant loud noise. The same with producing cotton. Should we be encouraging production and sale of these commodities if it means people have to work in terrible conditions, enduring back-breaking picking work or the mind-numbing boredom of grading beans and leaves by hand all day long? Or is it better that they have some job rather than no job at all? Maybe working in a baked bean factory in England isn’t much better, I don’t know, never been in one of those. Anyway, having mused on Grisham’s take on cotton, I then read an astounding article in the good old GW. Now, I don’t know a lot about economics – although I wish I did – but this article seemed to be saying that a certain Mr Louie Perry, cotton farmer in the USA, receives so much money in subsidies from the US government that he is a millionaire. This cannot be right I said to myself, it is skewed journalism at best or my misinterpretation at worst. But having conferred with He Who Knows About Such Things (The Husband), apparently ‘tis so. What the ???????? Here is an extract:

“In the US the safety net (of subsidies) means the difference between Perry being a millionaire or not…But what about the poor west African farmer struggling against a global market flooded with excess and excessively cheap cotton from giants such as the US? Perry insists that the way forward is not by hobbling farmers like him. ‘If you look at my standard of living and that of the west African farmer – are you asking us to go backwards?’ he asks. ‘If you do not have a stable US economy, then I could be living in a mud hut. It will take them time to develop, like it took the US time in the past. You should not be given something just because you want it’…”

!!!!!!!!!!! Presumably Mr Perry wants the subsidies. So by his own admission therefore he shouldn’t be given them. And as for the African farmer, yes I think it really is greedy and out of order to ask for the right to put food and water on the table and a roof over his head. Tsk! I would dearly love to see Mr Perry banished to a ‘mud hut’ as he puts it. Wanker.