ABELLO: Sowing cotton, reaping HIV and AIDS

Oscar Abello

Almost 26 years ago, out of the heart of darkness came three little letters that slowly grew into four, and together they became a pandemic. Every seven seconds someone contracts the disease represented by those three letters, HIV, and every 11 seconds someone dies from the four-letter word, AIDS.

Twenty-six years isn’t long in a historical context, but we often ignore that context when we talk about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We haven’t always known how the disease spreads and what it does to the human body, but for those who were diagnosed at least 20 years ago and are fortunate enough to still be alive today, we’re learning about what it’s like to live with the disease, and even learning simply that it is possible to do so.

However, even though we know HIV and AIDS are not death sentences, the global community continues to drag its feet in bringing this knowledge to the less privileged and still fails to alleviate the suffering caused by an unbalanced global system.

FaceAIDS Villanova was founded this fall to confront the global problem by using the resources we have at our disposal as students. This means being optimistic, being positive about change and working with others who have the power and expertise to bring about change.

We need to remember what we’re changing – the global system that cultivates the disease. We do this not by standing on the sidelines but instead through the struggle against poverty and inequality – the arms that drive the AIDS pandemic.

Cotton has a deep history in the United States. You probably know it started as one of the cash crops of the former slave states, chiefly Texas. It’s still the state’s biggest cash crop, generating $1.6 billion annually for Texas farmers, according to the state comptroller’s office. California never had African slaves, but it is also a major world cotton producer. Why does this matter in the struggle against HIV/AIDS?

The dollar is weak. It has lost a lot of value in the past few years relative to other currencies, especially the euro. That means it’s cheaper to buy Texas or California cotton than the cotton of other nations. What nations? Benin. Burkina Faso. Mali. Tanzania. Uganda. Sub-Saharan Africa, by far the region hit hardest by the AIDS pandemic, exports cotton as a cash crop. However, the falling dollar is only half the story.

The other half is that the estimated 142,000 cotton farmers in the United States collectively receive $3 billion annually in federal production subsidies. The subsidies, though helpful for some, also cause a surplus of American cotton for world markets to purchase. The world buys even more from America than from Africa when the dollar falls in value, because many African currencies are pegged or linked to the euro. Chinese garment factories have their currencies linked to the dollar instead of the euro, so the falling dollar makes it harder for fast-growing Chinese firms to purchase African cotton.

The results of a falling dollar and subsidization? In 2005, cotton-exporting countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were hit with a loss of about $300 million in cotton trade revenue. That’s money that would go toward, among other things, purchasing medication and training healthcare workers to help deal with HIV/AIDS today. That’s money that would go toward education and prevention programming to help deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic tomorrow. That’s money that would help dismantle the expansive networks of poverty and inequality, the gardens that cultivate the HIV/AIDS pandemic.


Oscar Abello is a junior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]