DEADBEAT – Fall 2003

Friends of Benin was established in 1999 by returned Peace Corps Volunteers who have served in the Republic of Benin. Our mission is to maintain communications between Friends of Benin (FOB)  members, keep the Peace Corps/Benin experience alive, sustain our commitment to international service, encourage members to share their experiences with their own communities,  support the Peace Corps mission in Benin, support recently returned volunteers as well as volunteers who are about to leave for Benin, and distribute news and information about Benin. 

 

Your Faithful FoB Officers:

President –  Brian Reublinger   bpreublinger@yahoo.com

Vice President & Deadbeat Editor - Jessica Duke jessica@urbatsch.com
Treasurer/Secretary  - Your Name Here        

Membership Coordinator—Your Name Here

Graphic Designer– Your Name Here                    

Web Master- Chris Starace-  CStarace@yahoo.com

 

INSIDE - COS Tours, Zemidjan Training, NPCA News, Benin Football, King Cotton

DID YOU KNOW?

 

*On January 21, 2003, Benin passed a law outlawing all forms of female genital mutilation.

 

*According to the United State’s Department of State, the Government of Benin fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons despite severe resource constraints.

 

TAKE A LOOK

Hello FoBers—It’s another issue of the Deadbeat for your reading pleasure.  All kinds of snippets are inside.  I took the liberty of including a long article on cotton farmers in Benin and the US.  The subsidies issue is an interesting one.  As a PCV, I never really thought about agricultural policies here affecting the successful Beninois farmer.  Little did I know.  As our world becomes increasingly interlinked, more policies have a global affect.  It’s a reminder to pay attention to what goes on in Washington, D.C.—regardless of your personal political leanings.  Happy Reading.

Jessica—Editor

 

Friends of Benin Elections This Spring!

We will be looking for new officers this spring.  Friends of Benin Biannual elections take place in May, 2004.  Won’t you consider running for an elected office?  For information on duties of each position, see our website

http://64.38.112.160 or contact anyone of the current officers.

 

Save the Date for the 2004 National Conference!

 

Mark your calendars now for the 2004 National Conference to be held in Chicago, IL from August 5 - 8, 2004. Our local hosts, the Chicago Area Peace Corps Association (CAPCA), and the NPCA Board of Directors finalized the theme of the conference at the winter 2003 NPCA Board meeting in Providence, Rhode Island:

"Peace Corps 2004: Celebrating a Legacy of Service".

Friends of Benin will have a gathering in conjunction with this conference.  We need some Chicago-area Benin RPCV’s to help with the planning of a FoB gathering.  If you live in or near Chicago, please let us know if you can help.  Contact any of the current officers.  Friends of Benin financially supports this gathering.

 

WE NEVER HAD THE LUXURY OF ZEMIDJAN TRAINING!

A Recent Benin Peace Corps Trainee submitted this blurb to Peace Corps Online.

I mentioned zemidjans earlier. They are the principal mode of public transportation in Cotonou and many other Beninese cities. Before we were allowed to use these pollution creating machines, we had to receive formal lessons. The zemidjan drivers Peace Corps hired to take us on our first taxi moto rides were quite amused as we went through the obligatory roleplay:

PCT: "I want to go to _____________. How much is it?"
Zemidjan: "One thousand francs."
PCT: "One thousand francs!!! That's the American price! No, 100 francs!"

Anyway, you get the picture. Then, we all put on our helmets, hiked up our skirts (if necessary), and climbed onto the back of the moto trying to remember not to hold onto the driver's shoulders as we performed this maneuver. We were certainly the neighborhood entertainment: 20 zemidjans cruising in circles around the block and carrying white-knuckled yovos gripping the bottoms of the seats, holding on for dear life.

COS TOURS

            Where did you go on your COS trip?  Many FoB Members replied to this inquiry.  We didn’t cover the globe but regionally, we came close.  Except for South America and the South Pacific (Bali being the exception – the RPCV who started her journey there was a Tonga RPCV, mother of a Benin RPCV) this small sample of RPCV’s have traveled far and wide.

          To get from here to there, people took planes, boats, trains, cars and bikes and one camel trekker!.  Most everyone traveled around for some months, some of us to get visas for spouses, others for the thrill of traveling, others to work or study, many visited friends along the way.  Our camel trekker intentionally visited religious kingdoms.

          The List –  Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Burma, China, China (Hong Kong), Cote d'Ivoire, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Korea, Laos, Macau (When it was still a Portuguese colony), Madagascar, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, New

Zealand, Niger, Nepal, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Turkey and USA.  Many of us traveled around our own country, seeing it through new eyes, before heading to our “home of record”.

          Everyone who responded had great memories.  Share a COS memory with us for the Deadbeat.  Send submissions to Jessica Duke dukeurb@yahoo.com or 2207 SE Elliott Ave. Portland, OR 97214.

A First Visit to the African Nations Cup

 

MEMBERS of Benin's national team have been rewarded by the country's leader for qualifying for the 2004 Nations Cup finals in Tunisia.

President Mathieu Kerekou gave the team a $100,000 bonus on Monday and promised that the team will be given the required support to perform well at the Nations Cup.

            It is the first time that the West African nation is qualifying for the finals. Over 40,000 fans celebrated the team's qualification on Sunday, following a 3-0 victory over Zambia in Cotonou.

            Overwhelmed by emotion, a pregnant female supporter gave birth to a baby in the national stadium and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

As reported by the BBC and  The Post, Lusaka Gambia

*************************************

            Benin, Rwanda and Zimbabwe could not have asked for tougher opposition at next year's Nations Cup finals in Tunisia.  The trio of debutantes were handed formidable opponents by Caf general secretary Mustapha Fahmy when he conducted the draw in Tunis on Saturday.

            Perhaps Benin will be cursing their luck the most after being drawn with three former African champions in Group D.  They will meet Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco in what has already been dubbed the tournament's 'group of death'.

But the country's sports minister Valentin Aditi Houde was defiant in the face of predictions that the  Beninoise would do well just to score a goal in Tunisia.  "We're not going to make up the numbers. Every team has a chance to win and I wish Benin the best. “  

As reported by The Vangaurd, Lagos, Nigeria

NPCA Annual General Meeting – by Jessica Duke

In August, I attended the National Peace Corps Association’s Annual General Meeting.  I was surrounded by very committed RPCV’s, many who served in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  In fact, this “older generation” of RPCV’s seemed to be the movers and shakers of the NPCA.  Sure, there is younger blood, folks who served in the ’80’s and ‘90’s and this century.  But you could tell the old folks have been coming to these conferences for ages.  They demonstrated their commitment to Peace Corps years after serving as a volunteer.  They care about the history and future of Peace Corps.

 The NPCA uses this conference as a starting point for policy development.  What will the NPCA work for in the coming years? What goals will the NPCA strive to attain?  Advocacy on Capitol Hill was a big topic.  It seems that the NPCA is always on the Hill asking for adequate appropriations for Peace Corps.  This year is no different.  There is a big push to increase the number of volunteers to 10,000.  NPCA works with Peace Corps and legislators to make sure this increase is done with adequate funding.

 

 I represented Friends of Benin as our Vice President, Newsletter Editor and Acting Treasurer/Membership Coordinator.  If any of you reading this would like to wear one of these hats, I’m happy to pass on le chapeau (les chapeaux).

 

The subsidies gap

Two cotton farmers: one in Benin, the other in the USA. The African faces poverty. So does the American. Only one word stands between them.

James Meek
Monday September 8, 2003
The Guardian

In the middle of August, with a few thousand miles and the Atlantic ocean between them, two farmers were tending their crops of cotton. Billy Tiller and Mama Idrissou resemble each other in some ways. Both men are in their thirties. Both followed their fathers into farming, wear baseball caps and say they love what they do. Tiller has four children, Idrissou has five. Tiller's cotton fields are at Bula, in the High Plains of west Texas near the New Mexico border, between the hamlets of Pep and Friendship. Idrissou farms close to the town of Tchaourou, about 25 miles south of Parakou, the heart of cotton country in the west African state of Benin. Looking at the two farmers' cotton crops over the space of a few days last month, even a layman could see that, from a purely agricultural point of view, the African farmer was getting along much better than the American one. Tiller has been very unlucky with his cotton this year.

In May, on the 2,146 hectares that Tiller farms, a vast area, he planted 1,611 hectares of cotton. The Plains climate is harsh, bringing sandstorms, tornadoes, floods, droughts, heatwaves and frost. There is no irrigation in this district; the water for crops comes from the sky, or not at all. By August, after erratic rains, strong winds, hail, unseasonal cold and a weird electrical phenomenon called a static storm, Tiller had just 21 hectares of cotton left. Even that looked parched and straggly in the 40C heat at the time Tiller showed us. Cotton is always a gamble round Bula. On average, Tiller squeezes little more than a quarter of a tonne of cotton out of every hectare. "It's like a slot machine," he said.

"You put the money in, you pull the handle, and it may not put out. The only way to win is to keep putting money in and keep pulling the handle. I've never pulled the handle twice and it's put out two times in a row. Not everybody can live like that."

Idrissou's farm is much smaller, 30 hectares, but, because of Tiller's weather disasters, the Beninois farmer has ended up with about the same amount of land under cotton as his American counterpart, 20 hectares.

Idrissou doesn't have a rain problem; in gentle mugginess, under a grey sky as heavy with wetness as sodden fur, his cotton was growing green and full and healthy, and beginning to produce the flowers beneath which the cotton bolls swell. Even in a bad year, like last year, Idrissou gets four times as much cotton per hectare as Tiller. In a good year, the yield in Benin can be eight times as high.

Things look bleak for Tiller. Yet something strange and wonderful and quite unrelated to farming skill happens to the Texan each year that means that Idrissou and his friends in Benin will not, after all, need to pass the hat round for him. Whether his cotton reaches maturity or not, Tiller

gets a subsidy cheque from the US government.

The American taxpayer is keeping Tiller, and some 25,000 other US cotton farmers, in business. This is good for US cotton farmers. But it hurts millions of African cotton farmers like Idrissou. The price they get for their high -quality, hand-grown, competitive cotton is driven down by the subsidised US cotton surplus. As a result, their profit margin - the cash they need to start dragging their families and their countries out of poverty - is disappearing.

"If I produce without getting any money, and there's someone who is guaranteed to get money even if he gets nothing from production, my rival will survive, and I won't," said Idrissou. "That's the big difference. I'll stop, he'll go on. There's something unfair about it."

Not surprisingly, Tiller is offended at the implication that he is on some kind of welfare programme that is doing down the poor abroad. He works 17-hour days; he isn't wealthy by American standards; even with the subsidy cheque, he is only able to break even this year because, when most of the cotton failed, he planted sorghum and brought in cattle.

"The world keeps making it sound like we are growing filthy rich out of these programmes. In that case why do I see farmers going broke?" he said. "All we are doing is trying to equalise ourselves with the world. Their cost of production is lower than mine."

It is a very expensive equaliser. What it does, set out by the 2002 Farm Act, is pay US cotton farmers the difference between the real world market price for cotton - currently around $1.23 (78p) per kilo, but often much lower - and a fantasy, "ideal" price of $1.59 per kilo. The payment is made not on the basis of actual production but on a nominal yield, on 85% of a nominal number of acres. There is supposed to be a payment ceiling of $40,000 per farmer, but in practice farmers get around this by nominating extra "entities" - often other family members - who can bump the ceiling up.

Overall, the sums involved are huge. In 2001-02, according to calculations by Oxfam and the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, US cotton farmers received subsidies of $3.9bn - almost twice the entire GDP of Benin. In a feat that would have made a Soviet economist blush, American cotton farmers got more in subsidies that year than the total market value of their crop.

Tiller farms in Bailey county, one of the 25 counties around the Plains town of Lubbock, which produce 3% of the world's cotton. Between 1995 and 2002, the Plains area farmers received total cotton subsidies of $1.26bn. Yet even so, they struggle, while the taxpayers' money which keeps them going hurts Africa.

Cotton has been good to Benin, a former French colony west of Nigeria. The country is still very poor, but income from cotton - almost all of which is exported - has provided the extra money to make the difference between mere subsistence and the beginnings of security. Cotton money has built schools, roads and clinics, and it has brought into the capital, Cotonou (nothing to do with cotton - it means "river of death" in a local language), a hurrying, noisy, 24-hour street culture of mopeds and mobiles. Life expectancy has risen from 44 to 51 years, infant mortality is down from 149 per 1,000 births to 94, more than a third of adults can read and write instead of just over a quarter, and 70% of primary-age children now enroll in school, against fewer than half at the beginning of the 90s. The number of undernourished people has fallen and electricity consumption has more than doubled.

All this is placed under threat by the fall in world cotton prices - a fall largely due to exports of subsidised, otherwise uncompetitive US cotton, according to Brazil, Benin and other poor African cotton countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali. They are to take their case against US cotton subsidies to the WTO and the Cancun summit.

From 1998 to 2001, when world prices were falling, high-cost exporters such as the US should have lost markets, and low-cost African producers gained. Because of subsidies, the opposite happened: US cotton exports doubled. Oxfam calculates that in 2001-02 Africa lost $301m as a result of US cotton subsidies. Benin lost 9% of its export earnings - more than wiping out the benefit it received from western debt relief.

We arrived at Idrissou's compound in Tchaourou in the early morning. He had just put on his wellies. The town smelled of charcoal cooking fires. Idrissou's extended family was out in the yard, eating a breakfast of rice and stew. Those who had already eaten were chewing on tooth-cleaning sticks. We drove along a red earth track, following Idrissou on his moped to his farm. His unfenced cotton fields were dotted with mahogany saplings and surrounded by maize that was higher than a man. There was a dreamy hum of bees in the maize flowers.

"Three years ago, you couldn't have come here by car," said Idrissou. "The road we came on was built with part of the farmers' money from cotton. Apart from the road, we've built schools, community health centres and water pumps."

The good times are already beginning to unravel. At other farms to the north, smaller, less well-connected farmers than Idrissou (he is treasurer of the farmers' association in Tchaourou) have not yet been paid for their 2002 cotton crop. The effect of lower prices has been compounded by a privatisation programme urged on Benin by the IMF and the World Bank, who preach the virtues of the market while keeping silent about the neo-socialist farm subsidy programmes of their rich world masters in the US, Europe and Japan. It appears that some farmers around Parakou may have gone bankrupt without realising it.

"We're discouraged," said BassË Bako, a farmer in the village of Sebou. "Right now, fewer and fewer people are cultivating cotton - sometimes when the cotton money comes back to the bank, and the bank subtracts our debts, there's nothing left.

"There's a lot of poverty in the village now because we're not able to use the only source of money we have. We can grow food to eat, but only growing cotton brings money. We're getting poorer and poorer. We're losing a lot of community projects because when when we are offered one, we're asked to contribute part of the money, and we can't give the small amount required. We lost a health centre project because we couldn't pay. And a project for a public water pump. Right now we only have one clear water source in the village, and many people are obliged to go to the swamp for water."

In Bula, we sit in the lounge of Tiller's 74-year-old father, Dewitt, and listen to him recall his life. Dewitt moved to Texas from Oklahoma with his family in 1944. After leaving school he worked in a cotton gin and saved up enough money to buy a 72-hectare farm and get a loan for a tractor. Back then, there were no subsidies, but with hard work, a little mechanisation, cheap Mexican labour and a friendly bank you could still make a good living from cotton. Dewitt Tiller's first harvest was 21 tonnes; he made enough money to buy a Chevrolet. Bula was a thriving place, full of young families. It had three churches, two grocery stores, a post office, a blacksmith, a garage, two gins, a laundry and a restaurant. Now the services, and almost all the people, are gone.

 The days of Dewitt Tiller's starting out half a century ago sounded a lot like the days of Mama Idrissou's starting out in the 90s: hard-working, civic-spirited farmers raising families in a thriving community, trying to earn the money to pay off their debts, buy better equipment and secure their children's future. The difference is that Dewitt never had to compete against a much larger, much richer nation overseas, subsidising its less efficient farmers.

I put the point to Billy Tiller, and he takes it on board.

"The guy you're talking about in Africa - I see this is the guy my dad was. I don't know if my dad could have competed in the same situation. It's a hard business. And I don't think that, without subsidies, we here today could compete with the American farms of the 1950s."

But like most American farmers, Tiller is convinced that US subsidies only protect him against equally unfair practices by other countries. Africa is not on his radar: China is.

"I just can't find a way to compare myself with that [African] guy," he said. "I see my competition as the Chinese government and that's one I can't compete with. In fact I may eventually lose. Farms don't see the other guy as competition. It's the governments."

One day last month Lubbock's most influential cotton figures gathered at the local chamber of commerce, over a lunch of meatloaf, roast potatoes, salad and iced tea, to hear an address by Congressman Charlie Stenholm. Stenholm is the most senior Democrat on the House Agricultural Committee, and one of the authors of the 2002 Farm Act. A member of the Blue Dog group of conservative southern Democrats, he represents a congressional district south-east of Lubbock which, at 80, 000 square kilometres, isn't much smaller than Benin. A tall, elegant, courteous figure, he wore a beige suit and black cowboy boots with a map of Texas embossed on them in gold.

In his speech, Stenholm steered a difficult course between attacking the Bush administration's budget deficit and supporting the use of taxpayers' dollars to prop up American cotton farms; between damning subsidies in theory, and blessing them in practice. "I do not know of a single farmer who would not rather have received their income from the marketplace than in a government cheque. But the international marketplace is not a free marketplace. It is one where all countries, including our own, mess around," he said.

"Those who subsidise are going to have to act in lessening that subsidy if the developing countries of the world are going to be able to survive and prosper in the coming decades."

They were noble words, but the audience did not look like men who feared they were about to be ruined. Nor, for all his charm and obvious sincerity, is Stenholm an entirely disinterested participant in setting US agricultural policy. He has 320 hectares under cotton on his own farm this year, and picks up subsidy cheques. His rolling campaign to remain in office received $13,500 over the past two years from a committee run by the main cotton lobbying organisation, the National Cotton Council, the largest single contribution out of the $286,000 it gave senators and representatives.

Later, in the car taking Stenholm to his next engagement in the little town of Post, the congressman defended the US stance on subsidies. Boiled down, it amounted to a claim that foreigners cannot be relied upon - either to play fair with US cotton exports, or to provide the world's textile manufacturers with secure supplies of cotton if US producers go under. Stenholm foresees an end to subsidies, but only slowly.

"I'm looking at it on a time frame of, say, the next decade. I think you're going to see a gradual movement towards the market. In fact I think that's the only way to do it without a worldwide disaster.

"If we can't compete in the world, and consumers are willing to pay the price, there won't be a cotton industry [in the US]. But I'm not at the point where I'm going to accept what Brazil or any other country is going to say about it until we see the facts."

A few days later, in Tchaourou, there was another political meeting. Three members of Benin's parliament, including the deputy president, Jerome Sacca Kina, came to town to thank local people for their support in recent elections. Hundreds of people crowded into the mayor's dim hall to listen, the sombre elders at the front, dressed in a kaleidoscope of lurid colours, the rowdies at the back. Speeches were punctuated by drumbeats, songs, dances and shouting. The official language of Benin is French but Kina achieved the remarkable feat of making his audience laugh in two of the local languages, Dendi and Idatcha. At the end of the meeting, in a reverse of the up-chain movement of money in the US political process, the MPs handed out money-stuffed envelopes the colour of the Financial Times to local worthies, to retain their backing.

Kina moved outside towards his car through a throng of excited townspeople. He stopped at the door for a brief word with the Guardian.

A former agriculture minister, he was, it turned out, going to Cancun.

"I'm going to tell the people in Mexico that I'm a representative of Beninois farmers, to tell them they should reject subsidies. The struggle against poverty in developing countries is difficult because the western countries don't buy our products at a fair price. America is the first power in the world, but if they don't listen to us, one day, they will lose their power. We've got to tell them that we exist."

There is little that is "natural" or "traditional" about cotton production in either west Texas or Benin.

The original cotton boom in south-eastern US, facilitated by the use of African slave labour, which included a large number of Beninois, happened long before the Lubbock area began to be settled by Europeans at the end of the 19th century. Large-scale cultivation of cotton as a cash crop in Benin only began under the French colonial regime.

In the US, cotton production is a showcase of technology. A single farmer can comfortably handle thousands of hectares with just a few hired hands. East of Bula, near Petersburg, the Hopper family, father Ron and son RN, watched over a crop of 600 hectares of cotton, much of it being irrigated by computer-controlled pivots, metal arms a quarter of a mile long that slowly rotate from wellheads, dribbling water in a great circle. All the cotton is genetically modified, to secrete an insecticide in its leaves and to be resistant to a particular kind of weedkiller. The seed is treated with pesticide. The crop will be sprayed at least twice with herbicides, treated with a chemical to increase cotton yield, and given manure and nitrogen as fertiliser. If there is no frost, the entire crop will be sprayed with defoliant to kill it so that the mechanical harvesters known as strippers have nothing left to gather but the white tufts of cotton. After the harvest a final chemical will be sprayed on the fields to encourage the cotton stalks to rot back into the soil.

The Beninois are proud of the quality of their hand-grown, hand-picked cotton. But they also drench their fields in chemicals, mainly against insects. If Idrissou is anything to go by, they would also like to mechanise. But they can't afford it. Where Dewitt Tiller used Mexican labour, Idrissou turns to child labour from neighbouring Burkina Faso.

When we visited his farm two boys, one aged 10, the other 14, were toiling between the cotton rows, bent double in the heat, hacking at the soil with heavy, short-handled hoes. Idrissou would rather have a machine to do that. Indeed, the Beninois government would like to be able to subsidise its farmers, too. It tried last year, but it couldn't really afford even the tiny subsidy it offered, and the IMF and World Bank warned it off.

Ultimately, the dispute over subsidies is not about African farmers being especially virtuous, but about them being especially poor, and being denied the chance that the rich countries once had to use agriculture to set them on the path to prosperity. Farmers' savings once provided the US and Europe with the money to lend to entrepreneurs and industrialists to move their societies on to the next stage of development. It worked: the US and Europeans now have other jobs to go to. The Africans do not, yet. And without subsidies, arithmetic and climate would put Benin cotton clearly ahead of west Texas. Hi-tech farming is expensive. The Hoppers spend about $860 per hectare, and get about 825 kilos of cotton back. Idrissou spends about $380 per hectare, and gets about 1,400 kilos.

"If cotton were not subsidised, American cotton farmers could farm something else - cattle, for instance. But we only have cotton," said Jocelyn NËnËhidini, a spokesman for Benin's soon-to-be-privatised state cotton company, Sonapra. "They are destroying our only product. We have nothing else."

Sometimes, the west Texans are defiant. Sometimes, it is as if they sense a coming change, a life beyond subsidies.

As you drive west towards Bula from Lubbock and it becomes drier, more and more you see the waving dry grassland of former fields turned over to the conservation reserve programme, the CRP, which pays farmers $75 a hectare to restore the steppe that the first Spanish explorers saw in the 16th century. When you switch the engine off, you can hear the waving heads of lovegrass hiss in the wind. Tiller has CRP land, and has seen deer for the first time, and porcupines, raccoons, wild hogs and bobcats.

Ron Hopper, who has farmed land near Petersburg for 35 years, reckoned that even with no change in subsidies, falling water levels in the aquifer he relies on, as well as falling prices, would make it harder to grow cotton, and folk would turn more to cattle ranching.

"I believe cotton will be grown here for some years yet, but to a lesser degree than it is presently," said Hopper. "Land always seeks its highest and best purpose. What we've talked about today shows you can make a pretty strong argument for the highest and best purpose of this land becoming something other than cotton production over the next 10 years.

"If you think about the word 'yield', it means something must submit. No man stands toe to toe with mother nature. We are not trying to beat up someone overseas here. In one sense we may have more in common with these people in Africa than their government and our government will ever have."

 

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