The spirit of Seattle and Cancun is alive. Once more the WTO negotiations were stalled/ With a combination of Southern country unity, the strength of people’s movements, and let us not ignore the pressure put on negotiators by the spectare of upcoming elections in India and the U.S. Democracy trumped Doha in Geneva.
If the Doha Round was started in the Qatari capital in the shadow of 9/11 and the Bush slogan "if you are not with us you are against us", the mini-ministerial of the Doha Round in Geneva in July 2008 took place under the shadow of national elections in the world’s biggest democracies, India and U.S where elections do matter. With 650 million people engaged in agriculture in India, the Government cannot ignore their votes. And Indian farmers have systematically voted out parties which ignore their survival demands for slogans of "Shining India" and "Economic Superpower India" and the corporate agenda.
This is why inspite of three calls from President Bush to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on the WTO negotiations; India did not fall in line with the U.S as it had done on the nuclear deal just a few weeks earlier at the G-8 Summit. This had left to the left allies of the ruling coalition to walk out of the UPA, leading to the Government becoming a parliamentary minority. Commerce Minister Kamal Nath had gone straight to Geneva after the trust vote in Parliament for the ruling coalition, the UPA. The Government did win the trust vote on the basis of wheeling and dealing with small parties. However, the votes of Indian farmers cannot be bought a few votes of parliamentarians were. For one, there are too many farmers. For another, the agrarian crisis, which is a direct consequence of WTO rules and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes, is too deep. 200,000 farmers suicides is not a trivial issue.
When Kamal Nath said "we cannot put at stake the livelihood security of one billion people", this, in part, is what he was referring to. We tend to forget that half of humanity is farmers, and most developing countries they are the majority of the population.
For the U.S, farmers are not a "vote bank". But agribusiness is a powerful lobby. Let us not forget that the Agreement on Agriculture of the WTO is in fact a Cargill agreement. Cargill officials drafted it, negotiated it and had it made the "international law" for trade in agriculture. This "law was used by the U.S to initiate a dispute against India to remove Quantitative Restrictions in agriculture products, and India was forced to open up its market for dumping of subsidized products, be it soya oil or cotton. And it is the removal of Quantitative Restrictions, along with creation of seed monopolies through the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (the Monsanto Agreement) that is at the root of the epidemic of farmers suicides in India.
Most of the debate and negotiations at Geneva were on the Special Safeguard Measures (SSM’s) to protect Third World countries from a surge of imports of subsidized products. As Kamal Nath said "if developing countries want to guard themselves against a surge of subsidized products, of course they need a Special Safeguard mechanism". The talks collapsed because no agreement could be reached on the trigger for SSM’s.
However, without the right to introduce and maintain Quantitative Restrictions, SSM’s are like giving the right to a man drowning in a flood to cry out for help. It does not stop the flood itself. Removal of Quantitative Restrictions is equivalent of destruction of embankments and levees that protect regions and communities from flooding. SSM’s are the scream of a person who is drowning. And the negotiations got stuck because the U.S and EU wanted to make sure the scream is authentic and the person is actually drowning before offering help. An international team of trade experts will determine whether the life boat of SSM’s can be deployed or not. When translated into the reality of the agrarian crisis and the survival crisis of farmers, the WTO negotiations are a cruel joke.
The issue in WTO was and is the sovereign right to introduce Quantitative Restrictions. That is the change needed with the Doha pause. And QR’s are needed not just to protect farmers from surges of subsidized imports but from the price surges due to food monopolies and speculation.
The current rise in food prices, which has led to the food crisis, is a direct result of WTO rules including the removal of Quantitative Restrictions. The increasing global control over food by agribusiness giant like Cargill is an intended outcome of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. There would be no food riots in Haiti and Mexico and Egypt and India if trade liberalization had not destroyed the food self sufficiency of independent sovereign countries through the removal of Quantitative Restriction and hence had not violently integrated poor country economies to rich country economies, and had not brutally linked the access of the poor to food to corporate greed, corporate monopoly and corporate profits based on speculation. Prices of wheat would not rise in India if India had not been forced to import wheat. Prices of corn would not rise in Mexico if Mexico had not been forced to import corn. After creating import dependency through dumping, U.S agribusiness is now harvesting super profits through high prices.
While millions go hungry, the corporations have doubled profits. Cargills profits went up by 30% in 2007, Monsanto profits increased by 44% And these profits will increase as corporate monopolies deepen.
Farmers livelihoods and people’s food rights will only be protected if QR’s are reintroduced and corporate monopolies are reigned in through Anti-Trust actions. The current rules make farmers compete with farmers and countries compete with countries while corporate monopolies grow. What is needed are rules of competition that prevent the emergence of food monopolies and the practice of price fixing and speculation. For this, WTO needs to be transformed from being an instrument of corporate monopoly over seed and food to being a regulator of corporations to prevent such monopolies. If members can metamorphose the multilateral body to regulate agribusiness it will have relevance for the future. Otherwise it will be quietly buried as a bad ten-year experiment, while bilaterals take over.
This process, like the processes that derailed Doha need to grow democratically, from the ground up. WTO rules will not change for protecting farmers livelihoods and peoples right to food in the green rooms in Geneva. They will change through national parliaments, and through our everyday practices of eating food and growing it.