This article explores the linkages between the local and the global in the case of the increasing dependence on cotton in West African economies. It argues that West African states are too poor to engage in the wide spread extremely damaging environmental practices the former Soviet republics or Latin American states have followed and then suffered from. This article demonstrates that this poverty leads to relatively minor environmental damage on the one hand and, on the other hand, is caused to a large extent by external forces. Cotton is a key export crop and the region is vulnerable to price fluctuations on world markets and to domestic consequences of cotton farming such as environmental and social problems. This article explores the structural origins and environmental consequences of cotton farming in West Africa from a holistic perspective, thus outlining the position of cash-crop dependent states in the global political economy from a social and environmental perspective. Although West Africa's subordinate role in the globalization process also means that problems arising out of the privatization of nature are not as acute as elsewhere, the lack of opportunity for higher-level integration perpetuates and aggravates West Africa's position in the world, leaving little room for ecological, social and welfare improvement. It is an ideal illustration of the classic sustainable development dilemma: poverty means relatively low environmental damage but the way out of poverty can only be achieved with substantial environmental sacrifices, thus making sustainable development an oxymoron.