Hanging in the international balance
THE PRICE crash on the international cotton market in 1986 had serious consequences for the land in West African countries such as Chad, Burkino Fasso and Mali, where cotton is a major export crop.
Cotton is produced both by small farmers and on large-scale plantations. The vegetation on savanna lands is cleared to facilitate mechanised agriculture. The governments of these countries provide the farmers with fertilisers and equipment, and transport and storage facilities. They also manage processing and sales. As long as external inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and pesticides are added to the soil, cotton production can be carried out on a long-term basis. But if the stream of external inputs by the governments is discontinued, the soil gets exhausted rapidly because farmers cannot afford to invest in maintaining fertility.
The sudden appearance of other cotton-exporting countries, such as China and former Soviet states Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in the international market and the rapid decline of cotton prices in 1986, resulted in accelerated land degradation in West Africa. Several farmers switched from cotton to other crops and in the process, lost their eligibility for governmental support. The land lost its fertility because the nutrients could not be restored and small farmers were compelled to clear new land for farming.