The U.S. cotton program, the target of scathing criticism in recent weeks, was the subject of a lengthy discussion on the “cotton initiative” put forth by four African nations – Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali – on the opening day of the 5th Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico, Wednesday.

Representatives of Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali and Senegal delivered petitions signed by 200,000 farmers to the opening session of the trade summit. The petitions call for the elimination of cotton subsidies “being enjoyed by their counterparts in wealthy nations,” as an account by the Inter Press Service News Agency put it.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told reporters attending a press conference in Cancun that he and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman met with representatives of the four governments for more than an hour the night before the opening session.

He said the proposal by the four African nations “highlights the importance of ambitious results in all of agriculture. And, of course, the U.S. proposal is to cut subsidies and tariffs in all of agriculture.”

That U.S. proposal to eliminate all tariffs on goods – including textiles and clothing – and to reduce subsidies through a formula approach would boost the markets for all cotton producers in Africa and elsewhere, he said.

“We are one of the few countries that supports them in both areas,” said Zoellick. “And last night, what we introduced with our African colleagues was an idea of how we might be able to address their concerns by developing a sectoral initiative to address distortions, not only in the cotton market but in the manmade fiber market and in the textile and clothing trade market.

“The aim here is not just to reduce subsidies for cotton, but to eliminate tariffs for cotton and, frankly, increase demand for cotton and cotton products,” he said. “They are all closely interconnected.”

Zoellick reminded reporters that 84 percent of the cotton products currently sold in the United States are imported from other countries. “Yes, we grow a lot of cotton, but the cotton products we use are generally imported.”

Many of the newspaper articles and TV broadcasts, he said, have noted that most developing countries are commodity producers but higher tariffs and other protective measures in the European Union and other trading blocks prevent them from generating income from textile manufacturing.

“So what we wanted to try to do with them is to come up with a sectoral proposal that not only helps them as cotton producers, but I hope will help them as apparel producers – and help other Africans as apparel and textile and clothing producers,” Zoellick said. “The other point we suggested we could possibly combine some of our aid programs and World Bank programs to help with restructuring their needs.”

Ambassador Zoellick also noted that the United States already has a preferential trade program – the African Growth and Opportunity Act – which improves access for African cotton, textiles and clothing.

“Our quotas come off on textiles and apparel in 2004,” he said. “There are many countries that will be selling us cotton products that could buy their cotton from African countries – if they lower their tariffs. We are hopeful we can work out some follow-up language as part of this text that would make this a joint sectoral initiative between those African countries.”

The Ministerial conference will continue through Sunday. WTO members have been hopeful that the Cancun meeting would help get the Doha Round of trade negotiations back on track for meeting a January 2005 deadline for completion.

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