Djimon Hounsou learns how US subsidies affect Africa

By Oxfam

The price of cotton is plummeting. And not gradually. Every year the price is taking a dramatic turn downwards and cotton farmers around the world are suffering. But not all cotton farmers. Not some of the largest farms on the planet, here in the US, who receive as much as $1 million apiece from the federal government to produce cotton. These farmers are locked into a cushy deal that pays them above the price of production, which drives down the price of cotton around the world. Those who don’t receive subsidies can't turn a profit and are unable to feed their families. Djimon and I wanted to hear about it directly from cotton farmers in West Africa. So we traveled to Mali.

June 19

Today Djimon, Sally Baden (Oxfam’s cotton expert extraordinaire) and I drove an hour and a half from Bamako to meet farmers in Fana, a cotton producing village.

When we got there, we sat with 20 of the farmers in their small village and talked with them about how they grow and harvest cotton. It was the beginning of the cotton producing cycle and the farmers had just planted the precious seeds. They said they were waiting for the rain to come. They were worried that if it didn’t come soon they would have to replant.

We could sense the farmers’ anxiety, as we watched them pray and dance to bring on the clouds.

As if out of a movie, the more we talked, the longer they prayed and danced, the darker the skies became. Our host, Keiffa Diarra, a representative to the national union of cotton farmers, laughed and said his new American friends had brought with them a gift—the rain.

Soon enough the farmers got their wish and the skies opened up, drenching us.

We ran like mad to the local school, where students had just finished their academic year, leaving behind their empty benches and desks. Djimon and I huddled together with the locals (farmers, mothers, children, goats), shouting over the lightning and talking about their struggles.

They told us they were barely getting by after the price of cotton plummeted. Just two years ago they were selling at 210 CFA ($.40) a kilo, but these days they get only about 160 CFA ($.31). Most of the farmers only make a profit of about $100 a year. It’s not enough for life’s basic necessities: educating their kids, paying for medication when they are sick, putting food on the table.

Ironically, the rain they prayed and danced for ended up flooding the village. Meanwhile, three wells in the village were incapacitated because of broken pumps. With their dwindling cotton income, the villagers said they couldn’t get enough money together to fix the pumps. That meant they didn’t have clean water, let alone water good enough for drinking.

Soon the rain overwhelmed us. The roads were wet and muddy, but rather than sleep in the dark schoolhouse with no electricity, we decided to try to get out of town.

Rather than speed away, though, we sunk. Both vehicles got stuck about a mile from the main road and we had to call for all the men from the village to help pry us out and push the car to high dry land.

We were filthy and tired and ready to get back to the dry clean hotel. Hopefully tomorrow will be a bit drier.

June 20

The next day, stifling heat replaced the rain. We drove almost three hours to the region of Bougouni. There, we were put to work on Modou Diallo’s cotton farm. Modou is also a representative of the national cotton growers union. We turned the soil to prep the land for planting. Djimon steered the hoe while two unruly donkeys pulled it along. It was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit under the blazing sun and we were working very hard. After we turned the soil, Modou explained his current situation to us.

Modou said he only made about $60 last year, after he finished paying off his farming expenses. Djimon was shaken by the conversation. He said he knew that much of the world managed to get by on just $2 a day. Modou and his family were living on just 16 cents.

Djimon said that something had to change. He said we couldn’t continue to look the other way when this kind of poverty is happening hurting so many people. You know something is wrong when the world’s richest countries and the world’s poorest countries are competing in the same market, but the rich countries aren’t playing by the rules that they themselves set.

June 21

After a two-hour, bumpy ride along a narrow road, we arrived in Kebila to meet cotton farmers who are cultivating organic and fair trade cotton. They told us that after receiving lower and lower prices each year, they had fallen into debt, which is why they decided to shift into a niche market like organic cotton.

Organic cotton doesn’t allow the expensive pesticides to enable growth but organic fertilizer that the farmers make themselves from the natural resources among them. Though this type of farming is more labor intensive, farmers can save themselves some out-of-pocket expenses by using their own natural resources to make organic fertilizer. They can also sell their cotton at a higher price when it has the organic label.

They felt organic cotton represented was one solution to their growing problems. With cotton prices dropping significantly they knew they either had to adapt, diversify, or eventually lose their land.

Because the demand isn’t as high for organic cotton as conventionally farmed cotton, they were still at a disadvantage, which meant they weren’t selling as much as they used to. But selling at a higher price allowed them to keep their jobs for the time being.

Djimon told the farmers that part of his job as a US citizen would be to start educating the public about organic and fair trade cotton to try to grow the demand. Djimon also promised that he would begin to call on our leaders to address the cotton crisis immediately.

We agreed that though prices fluctuate we must come up with a better system. We must demand a change to the rules of trade, which continue to devastate small farmers everywhere.

Djimon felt the next important step for him to take was to participate in the events going on around the G8 in Scotland. He knew that he could stand in as a representative from Africa who understood the struggles Africans are faced with. He could demand that our world leaders make a historic promise and deliver on it for Africa.

Djimon shared stories about his trip to Mali when he stood alongside the thousands of activists in Scotland from the US, Africa and Europe. At the end of the summit, G8 leaders made important progress for the world’s poorest people, by confirming debt cancellation for 18 highly indebted poor countries in Africa and doubling aid to reach $50 billion by 2010.

However, the outcome from the G8 leaders has fallen short of the hopes of Djimon and the millions around the world campaigning for a momentous breakthrough, especially on trade issues. Although some progress was made on a plan to reform the farm subsidies that keep Africa’s farmers poor, the G8 stopped short of setting an end date for scrapping these damaging subsidies.

Djimon hopes that rich countries will change their negotiating position in the trade talks in the run up to the December Hong Kong WTO ministerial, if people in poor countries are to be given a fair chance to work their way out of poverty.

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