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Victory In Cancun


Cancun stands as a victory of democracy over dictatorship, of fairness over injustice, of the South over the North, of the poor over the rich, of people over profits, and of life over death.

Cancun was not designed to be the site of some of the most intense debates of our times. It was designed to be a holiday resort on the white beaches of the Eastern coast of Mexico. However, from September 10-14, 2003, it wasn’t tourists who filled Cancun’s hotels but government delegations to the WTO.

As in Seattle, the Cancun meeting failed. Resistance to WTO’s genocidal policies and rules was successful in breaking down the negotiations designed to expand WTO’s powers over every dimension of our economies and our lives. A trade organisation has clearly overstepped its limits when it starts to write rules for agriculture which kill small farmers or rules for intellectual property which force countries to patent life forms and help corporations to pirate traditional knowledge and claim monopolies over seeds and medicines.

The agreement on Agriculture and the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreements, which have led to epidemics of farmers suicides, was introduced into trade agreements during the Uruguay Round of GATT, which created the WTO in 1995.

I started Navdanya in 1987 to defend the freedom of seed and freedom of food, the freedom of farmers which was threatened by the GATT. Today, the alternatives to WTO that we have built are flourishing. In Cancun, we released a manifesto on the Future of Food and Farming, prepared by a commission, set up by the Government of Region of Tuscany in Italy, which I chair.

Alternatives to WTO rules are not just possible, they are necessary. That is why besides launching the manifesto on the future of food, a collective undertaking of outstanding individuals such as Wendell Berry, Frances Moore Lappe, Miguel Altieri, Carlo Petrini, Edward Goldsmith, Jerry Mander, Bernward Geier, we also mobilised to intervene with a citizens’ challenge in the US/EU dispute over GMOs. WTO puts profits and trade above safety and citizen freedom to choose. On September 11, during the WTO ministerial, the Biosafety Protocol, the international law to regulate GMOs came into force.

WTO cannot rule to force feed citizens of the world with GMOs. That Monsanto can use the US government, to use the WTO to force GMOs on reluctant and cautious European citizens, reveals that WTO is not a multilateral institution but an instrument for corporate unilateralism which threatens life on earth and people’s livelihood.

I have held the firm and deep belief that food agriculture and biodiversity are too vital to life to be governed by rules of “free trade” and valued only as commodities in the global market place controlled by global corporations. In the eight years of WTO, rules being in force, poor peasants have lost billions of dollars of hard earned incomes, thousands have lost their lives as rising debt and falling prices of farm products push them to despair, hopelessness and suicide. In India, more than 20,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, when the impacts of globalisation first started to be felt.

That WTO rules are not about fair trade but about life and death was made tragically but heroically clear by the Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae on 10th September, the first day of the WTO meeting. The small farmers and peasants from around the world were camping in the grounds of Casa de Culture, outside the hotel zone. On the morning of 10th before their big protest they had asked me and few others to address their rally in the stadium. A few hours later, farmer Lee had climbed the barricades put up to keep people out of trade talks. He was wearing a large sign “WTO kills farmers”. After shouting a slogan, he stabbed himself. A note found on him said “I am taking my life so others may live”.

The April 2003 issue of Korea Agrofood had quoted Lee Kyung Hae as saying, “Soon after the Uruguay Round Agreement was settled, we, Korean fellow farmers, and myself realised that our destinies are out of our hands already… I am crying out my words to you that have been boiled so long time in my body.

For whom are you negotiating now? For the people or for yourselves?

Stop taking your WTO negotiations of fallacy logics and of words of diplomatic gestures.

Exclude the agriculture from the WTO system.”

In a rally we had organised in India in October 1993 before WTO was formed, farmers from the Korean Federation of small farmers which Lee had served as President had joined our protest to keep agriculture out of “free trade” agreements. Over the past decade, the coercion and fraud of “free trade” is evident. “Free trade” is in reality “forced trade”.

It is forced on small farmers and on poor countries. It is also “fraud trade” because while lip service is paid to a “level playing field” and “efficiency”, efficient small producers are destroyed by dumping of highly subsidised products on world markets. Our farmers like Lee were robbed of their right to live by WTO rules which forced Korea to open its rice markets to dumping by US agribusiness giants like Cargill and Conagra.

The cost of production of rice was $18.66/ bushel in the US in 2001 but it was sold internationally at $ 14.55/bushel. This dumping has been made legal by WTO. Resisting dumping has been made illegal. As a result of forced removal of import restriction (QRs) and lowering of tariffs, farm prices are in a free fall, driven downwards by export subsidies which create unfair and unjust trade. The Cancun talks collapsed because the US and EU insisted on continuing unfair and unfree agriculture trade which is killing Third World farmers.

Pascal Lamy, the EU Trade Commissioner, had announced even before Cancun that EU would not cut export subsidies. The US had announced that it would not cut domestic support. In fact, both the US and EU have increased farm subsidies since the WTO agreements came into force even though reduction of Northern subsidies and the creation of a level playing field in agriculture was the most significant promise made at Marrakesh.

The WTO has legalised the increase in subsidies through the creation of blue and green boxes. Thus explicit subsidies for cereals in EU decreased by 60 per cent, from 2.2 billion Euro in 1999 to 6883 million euro in 1999. However, total subsidies increased by 36 per cent when we add the 2.1 billion euro in direct payments allowed under Act 6.5 of AOA which the group of 23 wanted deleted at Cancun.

This legalised fraud in the name of free trade in agriculture was the main reason for the collapse of WTO talks in Cancun. While farmer Lee’s martyrdom sent a strong message of resistance from the barricades, a rebellion was also brewing inside the convention center.

Before Cancun, the US/EU had reached an agreement on agriculture which in effect was forcing the South to further dismantle trade barriers, while refusing to reduce export subsidies to the US and European agribusiness.

A group of 21 developing countries had made a counter proposal, insisting on removal of export subsidies which are killing Third World farmers before further reduction of tariffs. There was a deadlock in agriculture over the two texts. When the WTO issued a draft declaration on 13th, it failed to reflect any of the concerns of the South. What is worse, the demand of African cotton producing countries to protect them from the distortions of US dumping was trivialised to a para suggesting that Africans should abandon cotton production. US subsidies to cotton production and exports have increased to $4 billion after the new US Farm Act.

In 2001, the cost of production of cotton in US was $0.9313/bushel, while the export price was $0.3968/bushel, a dumping of 57 per cent. This has increased from 17 per cent in 1995. WTO has thus encouraged dumping while preventing poor countries to protect themselves from the devastating impacts of dumping. The US farm bill has increased subsidies by $82 billion.

The US farm act of 2002 allows the US Government to pay cotton farmers the difference between the world market price, $ 1.23 per kilo, and a fantasy ideal price of $ 1.57 per kilo. US cotton farmers receive $ 3.9 billion, most of it going to the giant corporate farmers. With these subsidies, the US has doubled cotton exports and destroyed the livelihoods and incomes of 250 million African cotton farmers. That is why Africans were upset and began the walk out of the Cancun talks on September 14, 2003. As they said in the press conference immediately after the draft declaration was released on September 13: “If Africans leave Cancun without practical results, they may not return, because so much efforts have led to so little.”

The walkout by WTO members was led by African countries who were outraged at the refusal of WTO and rich countries to remove distortions and unfairness in trade and the attempt by the rich to impose new disciplines on investment competition, government procurement and trade facilitation.

What the US/EU wanted in Cancun was to continue the right to dump, continue unfair trade by supporting their agribusiness interests to take over world markets through WTO’s market access rules. This is what the WTO rules were designed to do. They are rules for freedom of MNCs to destroy small producers.

Now that the bullying has been challenged by the persistent organising by citizen groups over a decade and new alliances among developing country governments, Lamy calls the WTO “a medieval institution” and Zoellick calls the Third World the “won’t do” group. The rich countries have sent a signal they will not reform, they will not let the WTO be reformed.

With this clear signal it is now imperative to stop the one sided liberalisation that is destroying our farmers and agriculture. It is time to bring back QRs and import restrictions as the Indian People’s Campaign against WTO had demanded when representatives met the Prime Minister on 26th August.

There was clearly no “Doha Round” since the new issues which it was supposed to launch have been rejected by the Third World. The legitimate work for trade officials in Geneva is now only the reform of WTO based on the mandatory reviews of TRIPS and Agreement on Agriculture. No new issues, no enlargement of the tradeagenda can legitimately be negotiated in Geneva in light of the failure of WTO at Cancun and absence of agreement at the Ministerial level.

The developing countries explicitly rejected the imposition of new issues such as investment, government procurement, competition policy and trade facilitation. These are called “Singapore” issues because they were first brought up by US and EU in the first ministerial meeting of WTO in Singapore. Rich countries should stop trying to impose these issues on the South through WTO. But the failure of Cancun,

following the failure of Seattle, also points to the need to remove from free trade treaties issues such as agriculture and intellectual property which are better left to national systems, and better handled as basic needs and livelihood issues than as subject matter of trade and commerce alone. Economic democracy can only grow upwards like a tree, with its roots in local ecosystems, local cultures, and local economies, its trunk supporting strong and vibrant national economies, and its branches nourishing and being nourished by international trade based on principles of sustainability, justice and fairness.

Cancun’s failure can be a victory for the alternatives we have all been striving to build to protect the earth and all her peoples.

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