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Slim pickings: Fairtrade cotton in West Africa

Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2009.03.002
  • Cotton
  • Fairtrade
  • Organic
  • Commodity Chain
  • Mali
  • Burkina Faso
  • Communication
  • Economics


Abstract This paper examines the extent to which certified fairtrade cotton programs in West Africa present an alternative to the conventional cotton economy. Two fairtrade programs operating in Burkina Faso and Mali serve as case studies. The paper argues that fairtrade cotton fails to offer an alternative to conventional cotton because it works within the same commodity chain that impoverishes farmers in the first place. Cotton grower organizations seek more power within the conventional cotton sector to increase incomes and improve the living standards of all cotton growers. They are also active at the international level to eliminate the inequities of international trade. It is in these arenas that cotton growers are struggling to improve their incomes and livelihoods. Fairtrade does not address these fundamental inequities and power relations. The slim pickings of these programs are further evident in the very small amount of cotton produced and marketed as fair trade. Plans to expand production from less than 1% to 10% by 2012 are unrealistic in light of the introduction of genetically modified cotton and the limited market demand for fairtrade cotton. Despite these limitations, fairtrade cotton programs are producing some positive effects, notably women’s participation in cash crop cultivation, higher cotton quality, and the diffusion of organic farming techniques. An innovative direct marketing agreement linking the National Cotton Growers’ Union of Burkina Faso with the US women’s apparel company Victoria’s Secret indicates that alternative trading relations can be constructed outside the conventional commodity chain.

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