Potential versus reality
What made Latin America not to follow global trends? There might be some historical justifications for some particular countries for it, but actually no convincing explanation for the fact that organic cotton cultivation did not grow in the entire region. Moreover there are no reasons the trend couldn’t be reversed in future.
Latin America’s cotton dilemma – frightening facts
Nicaragua cultivated cotton on up to 200.000 ha in the seventies and is cultivating only on 2.000 ha nowadays.
In the Choluteca Valley in Honduras cotton cultivation was terminated because the Choluteca River carried pesticides up to its mouth into the Pacific, there killing the shrimps of the coastal breeders. Terminating cotton cropping could, however, be avoided by switching to organic cropping. Moreover, organic cotton seed could have been used as shrimp food, therewith converting the farms to produce organic shrimps in view of its attractive premium price.
No cotton at all is these days cultivated in El Salvador, though 100.000 ha of land of the rather small country were dedicated to cotton in the seventies.
In Mexico during that same period cotton fields decreased from a total of 500.000 ha to 100.000 ha.
A similar decrease was registered in Colombia: from 300.000 ha in the seventies to presently 30.000 ha.
In Colombia’s industrial centre, Medellín, the tallest buildings were once all owned by the biggest textile mills. No longer: most textile enterprises have suffered serious crises and nowadays the bulk of the country’s apparel requirements are imported from the Far East, and 60-70% of the cotton requirements of the country’s still remaining textile mills is imported from the US.
52 years of war in the country led to mistrust and a lack of communication within the cotton value chain. Colombia is now, however, ready to counteract these failures.
Many countries of the region once had a strong textile industry and well developed design, fashion and confectioning sectors, i.e. ideal conditions for empowering the entire value chain. However, this did not happen. Instead, some countries, especially in Central America, are just in the business of cutting and sewing for American brands based on imported yarn and material from the US.
Much lower labour costs in Latin American countries as compared to those in the US led to such schemes (‘maquillaje’). Moreover in view of lead time advantages (3-5 weeks as compared to Far East producers), an aspect which is becoming more and more important, especially to the fast fashion sector, American brands increasingly tend to search for sourcing possibilities in the continent. The government of Honduras, for instance, plans to create 200.000 new jobs (more than double its present textile work force) until 2020 by incentivising the sector (Firmas internacionales interesadas en invertir en Honduras).
However, the advantages of vicinity (ease of communication and control, shorter lead times, low labour costs) do equally apply to fibre production, ginning, spinning, dying and weaving, and there are actually no determining reasons why these processes should not be done in Latin American countries, especially in those of favourable cotton cropping conditions.
Organic cotton production requires considerably more labour (manual weeding and harvesting) than conventional cotton. Labour costs being much higher in the US than in any Latin American country one would expect that organic cotton production would be greater in Latin America than in the US. However, organic cotton output in the season 2014/15 has been 4,2 times larger in the US than it was in Latin America.