Burkina Faso farmers still yearn for Bt Cotton

By Suleiman Okoth

Left: Mr Francois Traore (Centre) former president of Union of Cotton Producers (UNPC) in Burkina Faso with Dr Edgar Traore (Left), OFAB Burkina Faso – coordinator and Daniel Otunge (Right), Program Manager – OFAB Africa.

In my journey to understand the intricacies of Bt Cotton in Burkina Faso, I had the rare opportunity to interview Mr Francois Traore through a translator in his modest residence about 10 kilometres from Burkina Faso capital, Ougoudougou.

Francois Traore, a towering man in his mid-60s, former president of Africa Cotton Producers Association (APROCA) and first president of Union of Cotton Producers (UNPC) in Burkina Faso, is not your typical farmer. As a cotton farmers’ representative in Africa, he has brushed shoulders with prominent world leaders.

His admiration for Ernesto “Che” Guevera — the Argentine revolutionary leader who had a desire to change the lives of South Americans is unmistakable if you have an opportunity to visit him at his home — a portrait of Che Guevera is prominently placed in his sitting room alongside a photo of him with former president of France Jacques Chirac, Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela among others.

I was curious to know what attracts him to Che Guevera and how it is related to farming and his journey as a cotton farmer, of which he replied: “I admire the work of Che Guevera especially in improving lives of poor farmers in South America. I hope to emulate him as I represent farmers and ensure that they gain from their sweat and improve their lives.”

Mr Traore grew up in a farming family which initially migrated to Senegal from Burkina Faso and was mostly growing cereals. After his father became blind, when he was 15 years, he had to leave school and assumed the role of taking care of his 8 siblings through farming — continuing his family’s legacy.

“I left school in 1969 and came to Burkina Faso when I was 20 years. My main occupation was growing groundnuts, millet and maize in my hometown in Konkuy, Western region near Malian boarder, north of Bobo — about 150 kilometres from Ouagadougou.

“In 1979 I moved to Solenzo in Mouhoun State — by then the biggest cotton growing area in Burkina Faso — it is there that I started growing cotton alongside other cereals,” narrates Traore.

In 1986, after farming cotton for six years, he bought his first tractor and in 1991 bought his second tractor to support his farming operations. By 1998, Traore was one of the biggest producer of cotton in Burkina Faso and became the first president of Union of Cotton Producers (UNPC) in Burkina Faso.

Subsequently in 2005, when Burkina Faso became the leading West African producer of cotton, ahead of Mali, producing 500,000 to 800,000 tons of seed cotton, Mr Traore was elected president of cotton growers in Africa which had a membership of 15 from 32 cotton growing countries in Africa by then.

In 2006 and 2007, Burkina Faso was the undisputable leading cotton producer and exporter among all African countries. Between 1998 and 2013, Burkina Faso had moved from 19th to the 1st cotton producer in Africa mostly due to Bt. cotton.

As a farmer who has planted both Bt and conventional cotton, Mr Traore is against going back to growing conventional cotton.

“All farmers who have experience with Bt cotton are regretting the shift from Bt cotton to conventional cotton… but they are helpless and hope that the government will listen to their plea,” notes Traore.

According to Dr. Brown Doud-Uribe and Dr Mathew Schnurr who have widely researched the potential for GM crops to improve yields and livelihoods for smallholder farmers in Burkina Faso and across Africa, the lint quality controversy — that led to reversal of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso — exposed the different interests for Burkinabe farmers and cotton companies demonstrating the continued power of cotton companies in deciding the fate of farmers.

For most farmers in Burkina Faso, growing conventional cotton is labour intensive which may result in reduced cotton production due to lower overall yields of conventional varieties and reduced sowing.

“I am a farmer and I am interested in technologies that improve farming.  Africa cannot re-invent the wheel but we can adopt technologies that are good for our farmers. Our politicians can help farmers adopt agricultural technologies,” added Traore.

Whereas by 2014 more than 140,000 smallholder farmers were cultivating Bt cotton in Burkina Faso (equivalent to 70% of total cotton production in the country – one of Africa’s largest cotton producing nations), reversal to conventional cotton means helpless farmers are denied the right to reap from a technology that requires less pesticides and reduced labour needs at the expense of the health and livelihoods of farmers.

Mr Traore has a vision to import technology than to import food and wishes that African governments could support farmers in their struggles. As a revolutionary, he believes in the liberation of smallholder farmers.

“We should freely select our technology to develop our agriculture. It is important for us to put African farmers at the right place by working with different groups to support new technologies for the benefit of farmers.

“Through the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) forums, I was able to understand new agricultural technologies that can improve the lives of farmers like Bt. cotton and Bt. cowpea.

“In my own capacity I continue the struggle by advocating for agricultural technologies through my personal blog (francoistraore.blogspot.com) that I started in 2010. From my experiences and interactions with other farmers, there is no doubt that Burkina Faso farmers long for Bt. cotton,” Mr Traore concludes.

We thank Dr Edgar Traore for helping in translating the interview from French to English.

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