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Associate Professor, Executive Director of the Environmental Studies Institute
In Burkina Faso, cotton has alternately been portrayed as a success story and a story of increasing indebtedness, hunger, and environmental degradation. This has been exacerbated in recent years as agricultural subsidies given by western governments to their farmers have depressed global cotton prices. Due to world prices that have declined by 50 percent in recent years, many farmers in West Africa have become indebted. When asked why they did not abandon cotton production, most farmers replied that they could not, as cotton was important for food security.
Cotton production is the only way farmers can get fertilizer on credit, fertilizer that is equally important for food production, particularly in an environment of declining soil quality and growing population. This trade-off illustrates the difficult position of cotton farmers in Burkina Faso where villagers are willing to face indebtedness in order to feed their families.
In field research last summer, Gray delved deeper into these questions, asking why some farmers do very well with cotton whiles others face poverty and indebtedness. The picture that emerges is that farmers who do well use a host of agricultural practices such as manure application, agro-forestry, and soil conservation techniques that improve yields. Other farm households, however, are left out of the benefits of cotton production, because of the inherent risks of cotton production which leave little margin for mistakes. In particular, poorer farmers, with fewer assets and fewer resources such as land, labor and access to inputs, are much more likely to fall into debt.