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"Down with the WTO," intoned ranks of South Korean farmers, kneeling every three steps as they marched in a Buddhist ritual down the streets of Hong Kong last week. As government negotiators struggled and jockeyed over the direction of the World Trade Organization (WTO), farmers and farmworkers from around the world were also present, asserting a positive vision for an agricultural system based on food sovereignty and human rights.
"No other work in the world is remunerated with such low wages as that of work done in agriculture," noted P. Chennaiah of the Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU), an agricultural laborer and small-scale farmer organization in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Ironically, over 50% of the world's hungry people are small-scale farmers, struggling to sell their crops and make a living in the face of a long global trend of falling prices for agricultural goods. This trend is exacerbated by agricultural industrialization, corporate concentration, and trade practices that undermine local markets. Displaced small-scale farmers migrate to industrial farms or cities, driving sweatshop conditions in the factories and in the fields.
"With the opening up of rice markets, people's livelihoods, people's incomes from rice production are going to be devastated," said Jennifer Mourin of Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific. "That is why among us are many groups who campaign to save rice, our indigenous varieties, our local rice culture."
Farmers fear a WTO agricultural agreement will lock in trade policies that further undermine local markets, and make it impossible to address the global rural crisis. In addition, WTO's TRIPS intellectual property agreement allows corporations such as Monsanto to patent rice and other crop seeds, endangering farmers' access to one of the most fundamental elements of human heritage. During the previous WTO ministerial meeting in Cancún in 2003, Korean farm leader Lee Kyung Hae took his life in public on a police barricade, wearing the sign, "WTO Kills Farmers". This year, Hong Kong police responded to farmer protests with pepper spray, tear gas, and violence, and arrested over 900 people.
"It is time for agricultural workers to rise up collectively all over the world to show how we have been dehumanised and exploited," Chennaiah declared while launching the Coalition of Agricultural Workers International (CAWI) on December 16th. CAWI already represents agricultural workers' groups from Bangladesh , Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and the U.S. The launch of this new people's movement was just one of the many peaceful public events organized in Hong Kong by the People's Coalition on Food Sovereignty, associated with the global farmers' network Via Campesina. Via Campesina defines food sovereignty as:
The Via Campesina network calls for a new trade framework under the United Nations to prioritize local and regional production over exports, allow countries to protect themselves from dumping, permit certain kinds of government support for farmers, and guarantee stable agricultural prices globally through international agreements on supply management.
The clashes of farmers and police in Hong Kong represented dramatically differing worldviews around the decision-making processes and values on which the world economy should be built. Via Campesina insists that the WTO should not make decisions on behalf of global farmers through undemocratic processes dominated by rich countries, and that trade systems should serve local values of food production and distribution. According to Walden Bello of the Bangkok research group Focus on the Global South, “Free trade should be subordinated to development, and development should be in fact the central mechanism.”
Meanwhile, inside the luxurious hotels hosting the negotiations, developing countries constructed large coalitions such as the G90 to represent their interests in the face of pressure from the U.S. and the European Union to reduce their economic protections in exchange for concessions on agriculture. The resulting agreement underscores the WTO's intent to dismantle agricultural and industrial protections, while establishing a phase-out of agricultural export subsidies by 2013, with Europe making the deepest cuts.
According to Focus on the Global South, the E.U. is extracting a high price in return for doing very little. Although a large proportion of E.U. supports go into subsidizing exports, only a small part is classified as export subsidies. "There are no real cuts in domestic supports and export subsidies by the E.U. or U.S. with this [agreed upon] text…E.U. export subsidies will simply still take place in another form to the tune of 55 billion Euros per year," noted analyst Aileen Kwa.
Negotiators were unable to agree on details on most of the topics on their agenda, and have set new deadlines in 2006 to develop more specific proposals. Meanwhile, Via Campesina and its supporters plan to continue organizing a more democratic global food system in order to revitalize rural economies.
Contact: PAN North America