Frozen chicken imports threaten local farmers’ livelihoods

Frozen chicken legs may seem an unlikely enemy, but Lamine Toure has seen the foreign imports force scores of his fellow poultry farmers to shut up shop and is worried he might be the next victim.

The poultry parts -- unwanted by Europe and America where consumers often prefer the breast meat -- are offloaded in Africa to be hawked by 'banabana' street vendors or at markets for a fraction of the price of locally-reared birds.

"It could be me next…" Toure says, his voice trailing off as he kicks the dust in his backyard poultry farm in this Senegalese village, 25 km from the capital, Dakar.

"I used to have 1,000 chickens, now I've not even got 200. I'm doing what I can to survive but it's these wretched imports that are the problem," he told IRIN.

A report by UK-based charity Oxfam found that chicken imports to Senegal ballooned from just over 1,000 tonnes in 1999 to almost 12,000 tonnes by 2003.

It's not that the local producers cannot satisfy the demand, it's that they cannot do it as cheaply.

Although American and European poultry farmers do not receive direct subsidies, the grains used to feed their chickens do qualify for state aid. And this assistance means that even though the frozen chicken has to travel thousands of miles to reach West African shores, it can still sell for half the price of local meat.

It is the removal of this sort of protection, long enjoyed by Western farmers, that campaigners and developing countries are lobbying for at this week's world trade talks in Hong Kong.

"We must move in agriculture for the other areas to move," the G20 group of developing countries said in a statement as the World Trade Organisation talks opened.

Much wrangling, little action

But the negotiations have become bogged down in acrimony and the chances of progress look slim.

"In the three days the meetings have taken so far, the rich countries have transferred more than US $2 billion to their farmers in various forms of support," World Bank Vice President Danny Leipziger said in a statement, with talks deadlocked. "In the same period, the 300 million poorest people in Africa have earned less than US $1 billion between them."

Half a world away in Senegal, the signs are not looking good for Toure. The farm's sign dangles precariously from its hangings, seeming to have given up on the tough task of attracting customers.

Chicken sheds lie bare, and even though he has rented out some of the space, the business that once employed five people is having a hard time providing for just its owner now.

Down the road in the village of Kounoune, Badara Diop has already seen closure come to his back-yard farm.

"I couldn't make ends meet. If I bought a sack of chicken feed, I would have nothing to put on the table for my own children," the father of eight recalled.

"Senegal's poultry industry is struggling to survive with these imports on the market. And as if that's not enough, I even get people coming to my door trying to sell me them. I won't tell you what I say!"

It is not only the small-scale farmers that are suffering. The Mbao Agricultural Complex, one of the bigger players, has seen its staff drop by a third over the last five years. With demand for local chicken waning, the business that used to sell at least 35,000 chicks a week, is now lucky if it sells 10,000.

"It's an alarming situation," said Idrissa Kama, one of the directors and president of one of Senegal's poultry worker unions. "Producers have closed down, so have companies making feed, and those businesses that are still open are running at a quarter of capacity."

Health concerns

Economic repercussions are not the only thing causing campaigners headaches. There are also hygiene concerns.

At the Mbao Agricultural Complex, sales of chicks have plummeted over the last five years

Market vendors have been spotted defrosting the imported frozen chicken in the sun and then wrapping it back up in ice, and even the more sophisticated distributors cannot always guarantee a constant electricity supply to keep the meat properly refrigerated.

"The local option wins on all fronts. It is safe, it contributes to food security, it can increase employment and reduce poverty," said Lamine Ndiaye, the regional trade co-ordinator for Oxfam in Dakar.
"Countries should have the power to decide what policy to implement if facing an import surge."

Union leader Kama believes that paradoxically it was an attempt by the Senegalese government to facilitate trade that opened the poultry import floodgates. In 2000, the government struck a deal with several other West African countries to slash port taxes to around 20 percent.

"Then they were told, if you're doing that for Mali, then you have to do it across the board," Kama explained. "And that general reduction was what triggered the massive flood of poultry imports into Senegal from places like Europe."

He and other campaigners would like to see Senegal's government apply for a special trade status for products such as chicken that are crucial to food security as well as the economy.

But developing countries are trapped in something of a vicious circle.

"Before you can access to the so-called special and safeguard mechanism, you have to demonstrate that there's a negative or detrimental impact," Ndiaye of Oxfam said. "And sometimes poor countries do not even have the means to demonstrate they are being impacted."