Cash crops hamper livelihoods in Africa: Cotton in Burkina Faso and hevea in Ghana

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Map of Africa (Image: courtesy of Pixabay)

The major issues that agriculture faces in almost all African countries revolve around cash crops and food crops. In certain countries, like Burkina Faso in West Africa, that tendency started in the decade of the 1990s when planting cotton for exportation to France to manufacture fibres and other products was encouraged over the cultivation of food crops like maize, millet, rice and others. Farmers later realized the disaster of such a shift of focus because the practice was simply leading them into indebtedness and their families and the entire population was experiencing frequent hunger, an enemy that had almost been eradicated by the self-sufficiency agrarian reforms and agricultural policies of Thomas Sankara and the 1983 to 1987 revolution.

When the revolution was ended in September 1987, the manipulations of France and the impositions of suffocating diktats regained ground and cotton, the main cash crop of Burkina that benefitted France was given preference.  A little history of that crop takes us back to 1924, when the French colonizers forced Burkinabè (then Voltaïque) farmers to grow cotton. Then, in 1949, the French Company for the Production of Fibers and Textile (CFDT) was founded and made to flourish in Burkina because of the Sahelian climate that was conducive to such an activity. At that time, cotton was produced and conveyed to the harbour of Côte d’Ivoire from which it was shipped to France. The produce was conveyed from one French colony to another, and no hurdle stood in the way. All the benefits went to France and the populations of the then Upper Volta were left with just a few clerical and mechanical jobs, and also seasonal employment for a poor youth population. Some years down the line a semblance of nationalism and “Africanization” was imposed on the cotton economy and the name of the company was changed to Society for the Production of Fibers and Textile (SOFITEX), a name and acronym that dropped the word “France”. However, there was no substantial transformation in intent. The goal of the company was still the same – to ensure the supply of cotton and textile to France. The period of subtle and dangerous exploitation in the cotton industry occurred in the 1990s (at the peak of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes) and was marked by more aggression in cotton production. Money was lent to farmers who were encouraged to grow more cotton. Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals were provided to such an extent that the majority of farmers turned away from growing food crops and bought into the cultivation of the main cash crop – cotton. It might help to mention that the main exports of Burkina were then cotton and meat. Harvest brought a moment of rude awakening when the same farmers were made to sell their produce to the CFDT to repay the debts incurred. All the money earned from the sale of the cotton was, thus, given back to the company. That vicious cycle went on, unabated, for years and it is still going on.

Currently, European, North American and Australian industrial mining companies have embarked on a similar or more brutal practice of encouraging farmers and land owners to sell their land.  The production of food crops is reduced and the race for money from gold (and the gold mining companies) becomes the preferred coveted activity. A kind of “gold rush” settled in, with all its disadvantages (drug use, violence, diseases, crimes, etc.) but the average Burkinabè citizen believes that the mining companies have brought more salvation and benefit than harm.

In neighboring Ghana, a similar situation is occurring. The forest, mineral resources, the sea and the cash crop for which the country is known – cocoa – all follow the pattern of the one prevailing in their less naturally endowed neighbour, Burkina Faso. Not much was heard about cash crops or gold mining companies threatening food production until the recent involvement of small scale gold mining by industrial western companies and the Chinese. This is becoming the nightmare of the conscientious Ghanaian. The debauchery that comes with gold mining in Burkina is the same in Ghana. But, the situation in Ghana in morphing into a more complicated one that could have more drastic and negative impacts. Cocoa production is being threatened by rubber production, a phenomenon which is not so much noticed, although communities complain once in a while. Growing hevea brasiliensis supports rubber production and that chain of agro-industrial activity is controlled by western companies which operate on a straight capitalistic principle – profit and profit alone, regardless of the nefarious repercussions. In the western region of Ghana, near the city of Takoradi, the rubber producing company called Ghana Rubber Estates Limited (GREL) has been growing hevea since around 1957. The Government of Ghana holds 25 per cent of the shares in GREL. The rubber produced is sold globally. Michelin, the French giant tyre manufacturing company has close links with GREL.

Documents that exhibit results of studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Ghana tell citizens that there is no negative impact of the agro-industrial business on the populations. The study, rather, shows that mitigating measures have been put in place to control, counter and neutralize any disadvantages. People are told that increased employment, health care facilities, schools and so on, which the operation of the company facilitates, benefit neighbouring communities. But, in the eastern region, precisely Asikasu, a small farming community of about 10,000 people, the same hevea cultivation and rubber production is a serious source of worry to residents: 4,900 acres (2,000 hectares) of farms have been destroyed to make way for rubber plantations. Cocoa was grown on half of that land and plantain, coconut, orange, maize and other crops were also destroyed to accommodate the cultivation of hevea. There are other stories of such destruction to make way for rubber plantations in other parts of the same region (around the Upper West Akyem, Suhum and Ayensua North Districts in the eastern region). The rubber producing company contends that those thousands of hectares of land, some of which included cocoa farms, were acquired from the paramount chief in the affected areas and claim that the farmers were compensated. A statement that the farmers refute. Other farmers have this to say, “in 1995, GREL came to tell us that Government of Ghana asked them to bring us rubber trees. They said that one acre of rubber was more profitable than 10 acres of cocoa. They told us that everyone needs to grow rubber trees to wipe out poverty. So, they made us cut down our cocoa, coconut, cassava and oranges”.

The end result is the total disenchantment of Ghanaian farmers, like the Burkinabè cotton producers. The financial benefit of cocoa production no longer exists, and poverty has settled in. Environmental drawbacks like the unbearable odour of rubber plantation make life difficult for populations and, to crown it all, the soil is negatively affected. Research has shown that soil on which hevea is grown is permanently reduced to a non-cultivable land because all its nutrients are sucked up. The same company, GREL, owns the rubber production in both the eastern and the western regions of Ghana.

The disturbing fact here is that a very precious and income generating cash crop which is almost synonymous with the name and pride of Ghana is being neglected by agents or institutions that are supported by the state in most cases. A country which achieved the Millenium Development Goal of reducing hunger from 40.5 per cent of the population in 1993 to less than 5 per cent in 2013 is now crawling back into the same pit.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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  1. It is really sad to see how the people we have elected are just acting for themselves. It is the reality in almost all Africa. For instance in my country (Niger) , we have the problem of products coming from the western, products that even the white don’t consume. It is the example of “Maggi” sometimes called Maggi chicken, everybody knows that this product is harmful for the populations but there is no policies on stopping shipping this product.
    Africa, I used to ask my self can we really change???

  2. Hmmm, it is pathetic . This thorough research that can serve as a wake up call for us to go back to our first love cash crops to eradicate hunger.

  3. Thank you so much, for your outstanding article. I always learn something new when I read your work. May you be blessed. Once again, many thanks.

  4. Understood. These challenges in African agriculture call for urgent attention and sustainable solutions. We’re suffering in this part of the world.

  5. Poverty settling in,in both Ghana and Burkina faso is obvious! Citizens should have known better. Yes,cash crop production like cotton and hevea have varying effects on livelihood such as; Price volatality,market dependence,land use and food security, environmental concerns,dependency on middlemen,labor intensity,debt burden,climate vulnerability etc. The preference for mining in Burkina and Ghana to me, it’s unfortunate. The average citizen has no option but to join the mining concession due to factors such as income potential,lack of access to market to sell the crops, limited arable land, foreign exchange earning, government policies etc.
    You see, it’s not the case that mining should be chosen over crop production, mining has great disadvanges than cash crop production in both Burkina faso and Ghana. Mining can provide short-term economic benefits,it also comes with significant environmental and social challenges.
    I think, government and international organizations often work to balance the economic potential of mining with the need for responsible practices. The question is,is that always the case in Burkina and Ghana?.
    Your guess is as good as mine.
    Thank you Traore for yet another issue of great concern in West Africa.
    ….. Sakara Mumuni…..

  6. The issues are very true which require the necessary attention from our leaders. I’m from eastern region, therefore privy to what is happening to farmers in the area. Thank you for insight.

  7. This is such an enlighting article. The fact that these Europeans, Asians continue to rape, and disenfranchise, Africa leaves one not only in anger but speechless. We must rise up and realize that we have the resources and skills needed for our own self-sufficiency. We don’t need them. They need us and what we have. True leadership and unity is needed from inside of Africa and the diaspora. Every Black person across the globe needs to be educated on these facts and Unite!!! There should be one aim, one goal, one destiny and that is to free ourselves from mental slavery, free ourselves those who seek to capitalize on our land, our resources, and our people.

  8. The problem with African government is that, they have not defined what kinds of industrialization they want. The Europeans and the Americans have. African leaders need new definitions, plans, directions and what they want. If you don’t have a plan, you achieve nothing. And that’s exactly the status of leadership in Africa. Without clear definition of purpose, they go no where!

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