Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dialogue, don't burn cotton

Dialogue, don't burn cotton
By The Post
Tue 17 July 2012, 14:20 CAT

ANY deal that leaves only one party to it happily is not a good one. A good deal is one where at the end of the day, all the parties to it are happy and looking forward to the next transaction.

We don't think the deal between the cotton farmers and the ginning companies can be said to be one which has left both parties happy. The cotton farmers are complaining about the drop in price from K3,200 per kilogramme last year to K1,700 per kilogramme, which they are being offered this year. The cotton farmers have lost close to half of their earnings. Who would experience such a drop in price or income and just move on as though nothing has happened? Cotton is not an easy crop to grow.

It is involving in terms of cultivation, tendering and harvesting.

Picking cotton, ball by ball, is taxing. All the heat from the scorching sun is deposited on their heads, on their bodies. And during the period of picking the cotton, there is nothing else they can do to earn extra money. Cotton farming is starting to prove unstable for those involved in it. One doesn't seem to know what they are working for, what they will earn at the end of the farming season. Six years ago, the price of cotton was about K800 per kilogramme. And over the last few years, this rose to K3,200 per kilogramme. And today, the farmers are being told to slash their prices by almost 50 per cent. How is this possible? Why should things be this way? Part of the problem lies in the way cotton farming is organised.

In truth, the cotton that is harvested by our farmers is not theirs, it is owned by the ginning companies under an out-grower scheme. It is the ginning companies that supply all the inputs on credit to the farmers, leaving the farmers with no other alternative but to sell to them when the cotton is ready. It is these ginning companies that determine everything about cotton farming. They determine the prices of inputs as well as the price of cotton itself when it is picked.

The cotton farmers have no input in this; they are simply at the mercy of ginning companies. There can be no worse exploitative agricultural finance system than this. This is simply another form of kaloba for the cotton farmers from which they can't easily escape on their own. They need help. It is difficult to understand how it is possible for ginning companies in Zimbabwe, next door, to pay farmers US $0.80 per kilogramme when Zambian farmers are only being given US $0.30, a difference of US $0.50.

If the ginning companies insist that it is not possible to pay a higher price than the K1,700 they are offering, then there is no need for Zambian cotton farmers to continue growing the crop for them. They will be better off switching to other crops. But if this happens, who benefits? Both the cotton farmers and ginning companies will lose. And this is what happens to greedy people. In the end, they always outplay themselves, disadvantage themselves.

As a nation, it would not be in our collective interest for cotton farming to totally collapse because the demand for cotton in the world will always be there. And if we cannot earn income from a crop that has got a world market, what will be there for us? What this means is that the state needs to move in and protect our collective national interest by ensuring that cotton farming continues. And it can only continue if it is of benefit to the farmers. But as long as the ginning companies continue to control the whole chain in the production of cotton, very little will change to the benefit of the farmers and the nation at large.

You can't have a situation where the ginning companies are the suppliers of inputs to the farmers; are the ones who grade the cotton and set the price. Some division of responsibilities is needed. The grading and setting of prices have to be done by independent people or institutions. The scale is too tilted in favour of the ginning companies. This is exploitation that should not be allowed to continue. And if this is not exploitation of the farmer by the ginning companies, then one would wonder what exploitation is. We do not want the ginning companies to go under just as much as we don't want the farmers to be annihilated. Both need each other and have an important role to play in this whole business. What is required is for each of them to play their role well in a manner that puts both the cotton farmers and the ginning companies in a win-win situation.

The motive of ginning companies should be not only to make super profit but even more to contribute to the common good of society. Their roles have a central importance from the viewpoint of society, because they are at the heart of that network of technical, commercial, financial and cultural bonds that characterise the modern business reality. For this reason, the exercise of responsibility by the ginning companies requires constant reflection on the moral motivations that should guide the choices of those to whom these tasks fall.

A business enterprise must be a community of solidarity. And the sense of responsibility in economic initiative should demonstrate the individual and social virtues necessary for development. Businesses should be characterised by their capacity to serve the common good of society through fair dealings with others. There are over 300,000 cotton farmers who can be deprived of work if cotton farming ceases to be viable. In a country with such a high rate of unemployment, we cannot afford to put out of work such a high number of people simply because someone somewhere wants to make a killing, some super profits from their sweat.

The government must move in and use its legislative and administrative capacity to change the scheme of things. The Cotton Board Act may need some review to make it more relevant to the circumstances and ensure that it serves the common good. The Cotton Association of Zambia also needs strengthening organisationally and otherwise so that it can serve the interests of the cotton farmers better. The cotton farmers themselves need to remain vigilant and militant and defend their interests because if they don't, nobody will.

However, it is our belief that there is no need for cotton farmers to burn the cotton they have picked over price differences. Doing so is not only being irresponsible but it is also a criminal act for which they can be arrested, prosecuted and sent to jail. It is really of no benefit to them to engage in such criminal behaviour. There are better ways to solve problems and the best way is through talking to each other, through negotiations. It's only through dialogue that this issue can be meaningfully resolved.



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