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SPIEGEL ONLINE

05/14/2007 01:01 PM

Africa's Unfair Battle

The West's Poverty Subsidies

By

Farmers in Kenya, Burkina Faso and Senegal used to be able to make ends meet. Today they have trouble selling their goods because of subsidized exports from industrial nations that are sold in Africa at dumping prices. But will the West ever change?

Editor's Note: Industrialized nations spend billions to subsidize their high-tech farming industries. Surplus crops often end up being sold at rock-bottom prices in the markets of developing countries, making it impossible for local farmers to sell their products. Even the American food aid being sent to famine-plagued regions creates more suffering than it alleviates, because many governments prefer to wait for handouts than buy up their farmers' harvests. The lack of options is forcing thousands of Africans to risk the life-threatening journey to Europe.

It's a big day for a little boy, but it's also a day that will more than likely end on a depressing note. The fishermen know this, but none of them is willing to dampen the boy's enthusiasm on his first day of work.

The eight-year-old boy is visibly excited as he jumps through the surf off the beach of Mbour, a Senegalese fishing town, until someone hoists him up onto a brightly painted boat known locally as a pirogue. With two dozen fishermen crowded on board, the 18-meter (59-foot) wooden craft can barely remain afloat. Neither roof nor tarp protects the men from the blazing African sun. It's 10 a.m. and already 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit). The outboard motor roars into life and the boat heads out into the Atlantic.

Captain Badou Ndoye stands at the rudder and reads the waves. According to a Senegalese saying, a good captain can look at the sea and tell what kind of fish it holds by the way the surface moves. Bream make bubbles, mackerels make tiny waves and barbels produce small humps on the surface. Badou has 62 years of experience at sea. The 67-year-old is a third-generation fisherman. Five of his sons are also on board.

"Sardines," he says, opening the throttle. As the boat traces a wide circle, the wide net is tossed over the edge of the boat. This is the moment when the men grab the boy and throw him into the sea -- and into a future that no longer quite exists.

No matter how hard the boy tries to drive the fish into the net, in this coming-of-age ritual, it won't be enough for the fishermen to survive. Since the fleets of Toubabs, or white men, took over the fishing grounds, individual fishermen no longer stand a chance. Dragging giant nets and guided by highly sensitive sonar equipment, the industrial-size trawlers are literally pulling the life from the sea off the coast of West Africa. Some of these floating factories can hold up to 2,000 tons of fish at a time. It would take Captain Badou decades to catch that many fish.

An Unequal Match

But even if the local fishermen didn't have to use pure muscle power to pull their nets out of the sea, and if they had ice to keep their catch fresh and ships that didn't have to return to shore after a day's fishing, it would still be an unequal match. Unlike their well-equipped competitors from the north, these fishermen actually depend on selling their catches to feed their families.

It's a difficult concept for Mbour's fishermen to grasp: The supposedly market-oriented, industrialized countries of the north spend almost twice as much on catching fish as they earn from the catch.

Fishing companies from Europe, Japan and the United States are literally paid to pack their boats with state-of-the-art equipment. They buy discounted fuel and benefit from low-interest loans. Shipping is subsidized, and so are exports -- all with taxpayers' money.

Once their own waters are over-fished, they buy their way into other ones. Last year the European Union spent more than €200 million ($270 million) so its fleets could fish in foreign waters. From 2002 to 2006, the European Commission paid €12 million a year to Senegal alone for fishing rights. New contract negotiations have been underway since last summer.

This is all necessary, we are told, to safeguard jobs. But Captain Badou Ndoye is worried about his job, too.

The more valuable fish species are becoming rare because the foreign trawlers, in violation of international fishing regulations, have been pulling up young fish in their nets and not returning them to the water. Ndoye has also heard this from seamen who work on the foreigners' ships. On this particular day, after seven hours at sea, he returns home almost empty-handed. The day's catch consists of a few cheap sardines and anchovies, two squids and a few rosefish.

The mood on board is somber. Each fishermen will go home with no more than the equivalent of one or two euros, hardly enough to feed a family. Fish is Senegal's biggest export, with the fishing industry providing 15 percent of all jobs. Many of them are now threatened.

Cheap Crops from Europe and America

Senegal's fishermen aren't the only losers in this poorly matched struggle. Farmers are also leaving their fields in droves because their crops can't compete with cheap products from Europe, the United States and Asia. Stacks of onions from the Netherlands are sold in markets in the capital, Dakar. The tomato paste comes from Italy, the powdered milk from France and the chicken parts from all across the EU.

Senegal's farmers don't stand a chance. In that respect, they are in the same boat as their counterparts in Kenya, Burkina Faso and many other African countries, as well in Latin America. They could all live from the fruits of their labor. They could support themselves and feed their families by growing corn, soybeans or tomatoes, catching fish or operating dairy farms -- if only they didn't have to face vastly more powerful competitors who flood their markets with highly subsidized goods.

This is a far cry from fair competition. On the one side are Third World farmers with their pickaxes and plows, and on the other is the high-tech agricultural industry of the north, which produces far more than people in Europe, Australia or the United States could ever consume.

It receives subsidies even if no one needs its products. If necessary, exports of the surplus to the Third World are subsidized with taxpayer money.

Poverty for the World

The United States sends it surpluses to the world's famine zones free of charge. But even this supposedly charitable effort can harm the recipients if the free food floods local markets and hobbles domestic production.

Graphic: Disappointed Hopes
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Graphic: Disappointed Hopes

A powerful lobby exists to make sure that little of this changes. Its influence extends into the ranks of government. The governments, in turn, dominate the international organizations whose job is -- or is supposed to be -- to ensure that fair conditions prevail in the global markets.

These organizations, especially the World Trade Organization (WTO), are constantly calling for free trade. But what is in fact free is the developing countries' access to the products of the West. Meanwhile the wealthy countries do their utmost to protect their own markets.

In the past, developing countries kept out foreign competition by imposing high import duties. But those who need loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank find themselves forced to make concessions to the world of globalized trade. That means reducing duties, opening markets, privatizing state-owned companies and reducing government spending.

'Those Who Make the Rules ... Are Rich'

In the language of Washington's global organizers, these sorts of activities fall under the benign-sounding category of "structural adjustment measures." But for whose structures are the adjustments being made? "They say the world has become a big marketplace, and that barriers need to come down so that trade can exert its healing powers," says Samba Guèye, president of the National Council for Rural Cooperation in Senegal. "But we don't have the same perspective. Those who make the rules at the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO sit in air-conditioned offices, send their children to universities and drive home from work to their own houses in a limousine. They are the rich, and the rules they make are for the rich."

Guèye met some of these people at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong in December 2005. He wore his finest African robe and told them about the hopeless situation of Senegal's rural population. Guèye wasn't exactly telling them anything new. The 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it succinctly: "The fundamental problem that must be addressed during the WTO's talks on agriculture can be summarized in three words: rich countries' subsidies." According to the report, these subsidies are responsible for destroying livelihoods in some of the world's poorest countries.

Part of the purpose of the Hong Kong meeting was to put an end to this system, and Guèye and others like him were there to help bring that about. To be sure, the wealthy nations were forced to make concessions for the first time. After tough negotiations, they agreed to eliminate all export subsidies for agricultural products by 2013.

The self-congratulatory EU called it "an event of historic proportions." But for the poor nations, which had hoped that this important step would be taken by 2010, there was no cause for celebration. How were they to last another eight years? What would they tell their farmers?

A Price-Dumping Paradise

Since the mid-1990s Senegal, one of the world's poorest countries, has been doing its utmost to be competitive in world markets. In return for an IMF loan, the country devalued its currency and opened its market to foreign food imports. Quotas and licenses were eliminated, and duties were gradually reduced from an average of 34 percent to 14 percent by 2001.

Almost overnight, Senegal was transformed into a paradise -- for countries looking to unload their surplus production.

Graphic: Total Imbalance
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Graphic: Total Imbalance

Tomato farmers were especially hard-hit. They had made a decent living in the past, when government companies were still buying their harvests. But that ended when Italian tomato paste began being pumped into the country. In 1997, Europe's citizens paid €300 million for export subsidies, which ensured that their surplus production would flood markets -- at dumping prices -- in the world's poorest countries.

What happened next was almost inevitable. The Senegalese tomato paste manufacturers, that by then were partially privatized, bought the cheap Italian tomato paste and processed it further. Imports from Europe exploded, by a factor of twenty in some instances. The Senegalese had no way to compete. Their own subsidies had all but disappeared as a result of forced liberalization, and domestic tomato production plunged by 70 percent. Prices were cut in half.

But things got worse. In 2005 a Lebanese businessman opened a tomato paste plant in Dakar, and imported paste from China at prices even lower than that of the EU product.

Senegal's farmers have been in a state of despair ever since. Before the summer 2006 planting season, Ibrahim Fedior, president of the country's tomato growers' association, met with tomato farmers to discuss the crisis in Dagana, a town on the Mauritanian border.

The region around Dagana, where the waters of the Senegal River flow reddish-brown, is prime farming country for vegetable growers. The men attending the meeting were furious. Some had been forced to take their children out of school because they could no longer afford to pay the monthly tuition fee of €9.

What to do? Switch to onions? That would have been pointless, since Dutch onions had been flooding the market for the past three years. Grow rice? They could never compete against the Thais, who were selling their waste rice in Senegal at rock-bottom prices. Cotton? Pointless. Excess production in the US had caused prices to plummet. The men sitting in Fedior's office made a courageous decision: Unless the government could guarantee them that it would close the borders to foreign competitors for at least two months after the harvest, they would refuse to plant. Not a single tomato. Then, they reasoned, the politicians would have to wonder why they had destroyed their own country's tomato farming industry.

Creating New Poverty

Like the men in Dagana, about 80 percent of Africans make their living in agriculture. They grow enough to feed themselves. But if they are unable to sell what they grow, they lack the money for everything they need to lift themselves out of poverty: education, medicine and transportation.

To these Africans, the North's argument that importing cheap food helps the poor is laughable. After all, those who cannot sell their products have no money to buy anything, no matter how cheap. Instead of less poverty, Africa has more. This is why the farmers couldn't care less whether their demand for a temporary ban on imports is in compliance with WTO rules. "The WTO allows some to protect their markets and subsidize their farmers, and they want us to leave ourselves completely without protection," complains Fedior.

Fighting Back

This is the new mantra of the South: No longer to bend to the double morality of the rich countries, no longer to allow themselves to be cheated.

It sounds like self-defense. When the United States, at a WTO crisis meeting in Geneva last July, refused to reduce its agricultural subsidies and further open its markets to foreign goods -- a group of developing nations, led by India and Brazil, walked out. When -- and whether -- the talks will continue is unknown.

Fedior glances derisively at a group of framed photographs in his tiny office. They depict the ceremonial delivery of new tractors to tomato farmers -- tractors the government undoubtedly paid for with foreign aid money.

This points out a fundamental absurdity. The West, while paying to promote agriculture in the Third World, impedes its development by exporting its own surplus production. The numbers speak volumes. For example, the amount farmers in OECD countries receive each day in subsidies corresponds to the amount those countries pay in agricultural assistance to Africa -- annually.

Sometimes the products the rich don't even want are enough to cause poor countries to falter. In 2000, the World Bank convinced the countries of the West African Economic and Monetary Union to reduce their import duties for poultry parts from 55 to 20 percent. The result? The region became a dumping ground for chicken wings practically overnight.

In health-conscious industrialized nations, where leaner breast meat is preferred, wings are considered practically a waste product. Suddenly these countries saw an opportunity to sell their waste instead of grinding it up for fertilizer, spelling an end to Senegal's poultry producers. A prospering sector with 10,000 employees and 3.8 billion in annual sales was practically destroyed overnight. Two thousand small poultry farmers just gave up.

Half-Price Chicken Wings

Within five years the market share of domestic poultry producers had dropped from 80 to 35 percent, while imports almost doubled by 2003. Three-quarters of imports arrived frozen from Belgium and the Netherlands -- and went for half as much as the price of Senegalese chicken.

The EU claims this isn't dumping because no export subsidies are involved in the sale of low-quality chicken parts. But the low price is indeed an indirect product of European subsidization policy. As a result of direct subsidies to grain farmers, the cost of chicken feed dropped by two-thirds between 1990 and 2002. Feed makes up 70 percent of the cost of raising chickens.

Djibril Dieme, a poultry farmer who lives near Dakar, had already abandoned hope. He hadn't changed anything about his business, but people had just stopped buying his meat. He saw the foreign products in markets, but the details of how they got there were a mystery. Only one thing was clear to Dieme: Absent a miracle, he would have to give up.

The miracle happened. It was called bird flu. In early 2006, after it broke out in Europe, Senegal was able to argue that European poultry posed a health risk. Imports were banned, and Dieme has been able to increase his inventory of chickens since then, but he doesn't know what to do when the ban expires. He believes that day will finish off his business.

It will also be the day when Dieme will have to think about risking the hazardous trip to Europe, a trip all young Senegalese men dream about.

Most of them abandoned the hope of a future in their own country long ago. The port towns of Mbour and St. Louis are filled with young people waiting for the chance of a lifetime: to board a boat headed for Spain.

The refugee business has given rise to a vicious circle. Because the price of boats has tripled, a fisherman can sell his pirogue for more than a year's earnings. But those who stay behind can hardly afford spare parts for their boats because prices have exploded.

The voyage to Europe takes six to 10 days. Passengers pack into flat-bottomed canoes that can hardly withstand any rough weather. Despite the dangers there is steep competition for spots on the boats. Passengers know that they could very well sink on the journey, and yet they are also convinced that they will go under if they stay.

"They would rather die than live without opportunity," says Ngouda Ndaye, the cousin of pirogue captain Badou Ndaye. The 51-year-old understands their plight all too well. Five years ago he attempted the same journey, but using a less risky approach. In the harbor of Las Palmas in Spain's Canary Islands, Ngouda jumped ship from the Italian trawler where he had worked.

An American's Journey of Awakening

After spending five years as an illegal immigrant, Ngouda no longer sees Europe as a paradise. He was paid a pittance for working on a tomato farm, overworked in a fish factory and exploited on fishing boats. After a month-long fishing trip off the coast of Mauritania, the captain threw him off the ship without pay, snidely suggesting that he try going to the police.

He finally found a legal job in construction through the union, and he eventually got his papers and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a run-down apartment complex in Las Palmas.

Ngouda keeps his apartment dark and the curtains drawn, a habit after spending so many years hiding from the police. I don't want to be here, he says, but being here is a necessity -- it enables him to pay for the house in Mbour and the education of his four children.

This is more difficult than it would seem. He earns €1,080 a month for working 10 hours a day -- a lot of money in Senegal, but not in Spain. The rent costs him €400 a month, and after paying for food, clothing, bus tickets and telephone service, he has barely €200 left.

"I pay a high price so that my family can live," says Ngouda. He sees his wife once a year at the most -- and looks at her picture on his mobile phone a dozen times a day.

Stories like Ngouda's are the typical consequence of an unfair trade practice that uproots people and drives farmers into the cities and to embark on life-threatening voyages. "Someone should explain to the citizens in the rich countries how severely their agricultural policies affect the lives of the poorest people of the world," says Lamine Ndiaye of the aid organization Oxfam West Africa.

Terry Steinhour, 59, a farmer from Greenview, Illinois, decided to discover that for himself. He traveled to Africa to see first-hand how his subsidies affect people halfway around the world. Back in his tidy farmhouse, surrounded by golden yellow fields of vigorous corn and genetically modified soybeans, he says: "The trip opened my eyes."

Tying Subsidies to Production

Not that he hadn't suspected that something wasn't quite right in American agricultural policy. For years, Steinhour has noticed that while farmers decreased in number, the few remaining farms grew larger. He was watching a side-effect of the same distant process that regulates the lives of the remaining farmers.

Their lives are planned in faraway Washington, DC, and by influential US-based multinational agricultural corporations like Cargill, Bunge, ConAgra and ADM. With their generous campaign contributions, these companies have pushed through policies that guarantee them low purchasing prices.

One of those policies is the Freedom to Farm Act, which allows farmers to farm as much as they want instead of regulating overproduction. Another new agriculture law ties subsidies more heavily to production volume instead of the amount of land farmed. By contrast, Europe changed its agricultural laws in 2005 to stipulate that subsidies be based on the amount of land on which a farmer produces. Steinhour says the US law was enacted to benefit the multinationals, not farmers.

Steinhour is a good farmer and a good American. He votes Democratic. Africa never crossed his mind -- until he answered a call on his mobile phone in May 2006. A woman from Oxfam Chicago wanted to know whether he was interested in joining a group traveling to Africa to visit local farmers.

He spent a week considering the offer. He had only flown twice in his life, and had only been abroad once, 20 years ago. Since then he had put on weight, his hair had turned silver and his passport had expired. "You'll never forgive yourself if you don't go," his wife Phyllis told him.

Poverty and Suffering

It was a life-changing experience. "We have no idea what we're doing there. We are endangering lives in Africa," he says.

Steinhour was unprepared for the poverty and suffering he would encounter on the trip -- the begging children, the miserable huts, the unimaginable air pollution in Dakar, the stinking slums, the dusty roads. But for Steinhour the worst sight of all was of the pitiful wheat fields that farmers at home in Illinois would normally plow under to keep the neighbors from talking.

Steinhour and the group of US farmers spent seven days meeting with government ministers in Mali and Senegal, talking with farmers' associations and eating their meals with local farmers. Everyone they met had one request: Stop your subsidies!

Everyone, down to the last villager, knew why cotton, the livelihood of 10 million West Africans, was no longer selling: because George W. Bush gives away $3 to $4 billion dollars a year to his 25,000 cotton barons -- four times the amount the developed world spends on agricultural assistance for the world's poor.

US overproduction is causing the market price of cotton to plummet. In autumn 2003, four West African countries filed a complaint with the WTO, citing unfair trade practices on the part of the US. The WTO agreed, but the Americans ignored the complaint. The cotton subsidies continue to this day.

The biggest losers in the global trade game are precisely those poor countries that comply with the demands of the WTO, the IMF and a global brigade of pro-industry scientists. According to UN figures, poverty has actually grown in those countries that were the quickest to grant access to their markets. The countries that opened up more cautiously have fared the best. Those that have sealed their markets are the worst off.

"The previous trade agreements were neither free nor fair," says Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, "they were detrimental to the developing countries." According to Stiglitz, the industrialized nations held onto a series of subtle but effective barriers that limited access to their markets.

Do the Europeans Really Care?

It's hardly surprising that the developing nations walked out on the WTO meeting in Geneva. And yet EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel finds this hard to understand. The resulting stalemate is devastating for the Third World, says Fischer Boel, and it represents a missed opportunity to enjoy the benefits of global trade. "We will continue to do everything within our power to support our partners in the Third World," she says.

But do the Europeans really care? Even the UN has sharply criticized Europe's agricultural policy. According to the 2005 UN Human Development Report: "The world's highest trade barriers are erected against some of the poorest countries. For example, the EU is proud of its efforts to open its markets to the world's poorest countries. But its restrictive country-of-origin provisions, on which the right to trading preferences is based, destroy opportunities for most of these countries."

Fischer Boel is quick to counter such criticism, arguing that the EU -- unlike the United States -- has improved considerably. US farmers receive more than twice as much in trade-distorting subsidies. This aid jumped from $5.5 billion to $14.1 billion in 2005. In addition, US President George W. Bush refuses to reduce duties on textiles imported from developing countries. The United States, says Fischer Boel, deserves far more criticism than Europe.

Charity with a Hitch

EU officials in Brussels like to cite an especially illustrative example -- food aid -- to demonstrate how ruthless US actions are.

The United States spends $1.2 billion on food for the world's hungry, making it the biggest provider of food aid. It is also the biggest contributor to the UN's World Food Program (WFP). But this seemingly charitable commitment comes with a major hitch: Instead of donating money, the United States donates food, almost all of which it produces itself. The government buys grain from its subsidized farmers, and the grain is transported by US shipping companies and loaded onto US ships.

In this way about half the value remains in the United States -- a hidden subsidy at the expense of the hungry. It is also noticeable that poverty in the world seems to rise sharply during times of the greatest US overproduction. When that happens, even countries that are not in need receive free grain -- to the detriment of local farmers.

This egotistical charitable posturing on the part of the United States has been criticized for years. In 2005, Andrew Natsios, then head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a part of the State Department, took a stab at solving the problem. He suggested that the US pay a fourth of its aid in cash, so that food could be purchased locally in the respective regions.

Natsios had anticipated resistance: from politicians, farmers and the transportation lobby. But the loudest protestors turned out to be the 48 aid organizations that are involved in food aid distribution. Catholic Relief Services, the world's largest non-governmental food distributor, was especially resistant. The Baltimore-based organization was concerned that the Natsios proposal would lead to a rapid decline in charitable donations and significant budget cuts.

Michael Wiest, the chief operating officer of Catholic Relief, is a quiet, calm man with a benevolent smile and grey hair. But when the name Natsios is mentioned, he becomes so enraged that his face turns red. He is deeply troubled by what he describes as Natsios's insinuation that NGOs are in bed with the agricultural industry and were merely interested in ensuring their own survival.

"This is what it's about, and nothing else," says Wiest, holding up a red book as if it were a sign. The book, by Pope Benedict XVI, is called "God Is Love." "The Bible states: ' For I was hungry and you gave me food,'" Wiest explains, adding that this is exactly what he and his organization are doing. Being portrayed as a fat cat in the pockets of industry, says Wiest, is a malicious misinterpretation of his motives.

In 2007, says Wiest, Catholic Relief plans to spend only 16.7 percent of its $580 million budget on food aid. "Does Natsios truly believe that it would be the end of us if they deprived us of this task?"

But the sector isn't quite as unimportant as Wiest claims. Food aid made up half of his budget in 2004, and about 30 percent in 2005. Catholic Relief uses a portion of this budget to pay for an entirely different sort of charitable project in the "Third World." Food that is in fact intended for the poor is sold in the "Third World's" markets, and the profits are used to pay for educational programs, AIDS prevention and healthcare.

This highly controversial practice is called monetarization. It isn't optimal, Wiest admits, but instead a matter of weighing one's options. The farmers in the village of Kesses in western Kenya would undoubtedly arrive at a different decision if given the same choice.

Unable to Compete against WFP

The region where Kesses is located, between the Kenyan capital Nairobi and Uganda, is the country's most fertile. Its green hills are more reminiscent of Tuscany than of a country were people are starving to death. The corn is high in the fields, tomato fields are a bright red, wheat blows in the wind and fat Holstein cows graze in the meadows. Nevertheless, the region's farmers are unable to sell what they produce.

"When a famine is expected in the north or the east, the government would rather wait for a delivery from the World Food Program than buy our corn," says Julius Rotich, a farmer who has joined forces with other farmers in Kesses to form a marketing cooperative. They have even set up an office and have agreed to sell their products as part of a joint effort, just as their counterparts would do in rich countries. But no matter how hard they try, not even these industrious farmers can compete against handouts.

Besides, the price of grain always drops whenever a new World Food Program shipment arrives. This is because, as speculators know, a portion of each shipment always ends up on the open market. "The wholesalers openly pressure us with the threat that they can just as well buy from the WFP," says Rotich.

Rotich's group would be delighted to sell its harvest to the World Food Program. But the WFP's warehouses are filled to bursting with American millet, corn and soy meal. "What else can we do?" asks Peter Smerdon of the WFP's Nairobi office, shrugging his shoulders. "We would prefer cash. But we can't turn down US food. Of course they give to us for selfish reason, but it's still a gift."

Where the aid comes from and how it affects the local economy makes little difference to Smerdon. "Our job is to keep people alive. Developing Kenya is for others to do." Farmer Rotich laughs bitterly. All it would take would be a small amount of aid, and a few loans for fertilizer and equipment, and harvests would be bountiful. "We could feed the country," he says.

'The Entire Food Aid System Is Perverted'

But feeding Kenya is someone else's job. Early in the day, shortly after sunrise, a WFP team sets out on a food distribution mission. Today's route begins in Garissa, a city in eastern Kenya, and ends at the Somali border. The truck is filled to the roof with sacks of US flour, salt and vegetable oil. It struggles along dusty roads through a barren, thorny landscape. The plastic bags caught in the brush are the only sign of civilization.

Four bumpy hours later, the shipment arrives in Welmarele, a village of twig huts, a masonry school and a water pump donated by aid workers. Skinny cows and camels and hundreds of goats jostle for a spot at the well. The cowherds run to the village square, where the truck is already being unloaded. They receive food from the WFP once a month, and the food is intended strictly for the villagers' personal consumption. But hardly has the distribution ended before a sack marked with the US flag is for sale in one of the local shops.

"The entire food aid system is perverted," says Kenyan economist James Shikwati. "A culture has been created that destroys all independent initiative, stabilizes corrupt governments and preserves obsolete social structures."

Take nomadic shepherds, for example. "They keep their animals as a status symbol -- and to buy wives. In the past they would slaughter the animals when food and water became scarce. Nowadays they prefer to wait for the aid deliveries."

The outcome is that far too many animals are over-grazing the already barren land, causing erosion. The shepherds move to greener pastures, producing conflict with farmers. If the conflict erupts into war, the UN will likely send in peacekeepers to settle a problem caused by the UN food program.

"Now isn't that crazy?" asks the 37-year economist. It's difficult to argue with Shikwati. Conflicts over land distribution are one of the central causes of many of Africa's wars.

The land available to nomadic herdsman is being restricted almost everywhere. In the West African country of Burkina Faso, farmers have occupied the nomads' ancestral grazing grounds, because they in turn are being displaced by growing cities. The first clashes have already erupted, reports Wilhelm Thees, who works for the aid organization Misereor in the capital Ouagadougou. A group of farmers recently shot cows that had wandered onto their fields. Out of revenge, the herdsmen drove their entire herd onto the planted fields the next day.

Disputes like these can turn into wars. Misereor wants to prevent this from happening by convincing the nomads to settle down in one place. "If they could live from the sale of milk, peace would be guaranteed in the country," says Thees. Misereor recently commissioned Father Maurice Oudet, a missionary who has been working with the herdsmen for a long time, to conduct a study. The results were devastating. According to Oudet, the domestic milk industry doesn't stand a chance against imported powder, most of which comes from the EU.

The Daily Struggle to Survive

Europe exported about 1,150 tons of dried whole milk to Burkina Faso in 2005. It may be a drop in the bucket for the world's biggest milk producer, but for Gariko Krotoumou it signifies a daily struggle to survive. The 50-year-old woman from Burkina Faso has eight dairy cows. The best of her Zebu cows produces four or five liters of milk a day -- one-eighth of what a European super-cow can produce. The flow of milk dries up completely in the dry season, when the animals have little to eat. Gariko ought to give her cows additional feed -- cottonseed patties and millet -- but this isn't something she can afford. She is familiar with the cause of her misery, and she is reminded of it on every street corner and in front of the small shop next to her house, where signs featuring a laughing cartoon cow advertise imported milk.

The foreign milk powder is ubiquitous, filling the shelves in supermarkets and corner stores with family portions from France Lait and Nestlé, bulk packages from French companies Bridel and Lacstar, Ireland's Vivalait and Kerrygold, the Dutch brand Bonnet Rouge and Cowbell from New Zealand.

One liter of milk made with milk powder costs between 0.30 cents and 0.60 cents. After milking her cows and pasteurizing the milk in hot water, Gariko has to charge 0.90 cents to make a profit. She sells the milk in small bags by the side of the road.

Gariko, who comes from a family of government officials, can read and write. She knows why she is unable to underbid the foreigners' prices. "They get money from the state so that they can bring their milk here," she says. Misereor paid for Gariko to travel to Germany, where she spoke to dairy farmers' groups and begged them to put an end to the exports. But even Germany's farmers weren't interested.

German farmers benefit when the EU spends between €1 billion and €1.6 billion a year, or from 25 to 30 percent of the value of the product, to export milk products. To ensure that its urban population receives cheap milk, the government of Burkina Faso demands a five percent import duty. For the country's elites, who grew up with milk powder, fresh milk has a bad image. To them it smells like cows and poverty. "Even the kids are seeing the ads on television and asking for Danone yoghurt," says Father Oudet.

Dégué, a traditional, sweetened yoghurt with millet mixed in, remains popular. In Koudougou, an hour and a half from Ouagadougou, a group of dairy farmers have formed a cooperative to produce dégué. They buy fresh milk every day, but even they occasionally use the imported powder -- because it's cheaper.

"This isn't the way value is created," says Thees. "If we want to keep the Africans at subsistence level, we might as well cancel all the poverty conferences."

François Traoré is even more direct. The leader of Burkina Faso's cotton farmers is a powerful presence. His deep voice booms when he begins to cite his complaints, banging his fists on the table in his conference room in Ouagadougou. He knows how intimidating he can be, after having convinced the world, at the WTO meeting in Cancun, of the unfairness of US cotton subsidies. "And what good did that do?" he rants. "The US just keeps on merrily subsidizing and exporting away, while the world looks on."

Traoré holds a dim view of international institutions. The IMF? A club of the rich that wants to open markets for the rich. The World Bank? Interested in business, not charitable acts. The WTO? Lies to the world that it's acting for the benefit of the poor. "The truth," says Traoré, "is that none of them wants to give anything away."

Traoré's solution is to take a more forceful approach: to keep them at bay with high protective tariffs so that domestic markets can develop; to inform their citizens about unfair government policies, so that those at the top can be held responsible for their actions; to organize protests to alert the world to the injustices.

But the best form of pressure is the flow of migrants who are setting out, by the hundreds of thousands, toward the paradises of the North. From what he has seen on his travels, Traoré is convinced that Europe is already nervous. And the tension will continue to rise. Those who are unable to survive at home will not be held back, not even by fences, coast guard vessels or soldiers.

"If the rich nations destroy every chance of development in our countries, then we will just have to develop ourselves in their countries," says Samba Guèye, Traoré's counterpart in Senegal. It sounds like a threat. And that's exactly the way it's meant. "We exported peanuts and they destroyed that. We exported fish and they caught our fish. Now we will just export people."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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