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Sweet Nothings in Cancún

The state of Quintana Roo, on the furthest eastern shore of Mexico, was a lush, overgrown, tropical outpost for most of its history – a haven for Caribbean pirates, outlaws and indigenous Maya living beyond the reach of government.

In 1970 a computer chose Cancún – then a quiet fishing village – as the site for casinos, sun, sex and resort-style tourist development. This was the location for the Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in September.

The Convention Centre, blocked off by steel barricades and armed vehicles, was at the tip of an inaccessible causeway lined with strip malls and giant five-star faux-Mayan-temple hotels which towered over the real, ragged descendants of the Maya who slept on the roadside at night.

In addition to the thousands of official delegates who took over the hotel zone, more than 2,000 non-governmental organizations had made their way here to advise, beseech and condemn.

On the other, earthier, side of town a makeshift encampment sprang up in the grounds of a sports stadium and park. Peasant farmers and indigenous people gathered here for an international forum and march against the WTO. Koreans, Thais, Brazilians, Guatemalans and family farmers from the US and Europe were all here.

Back in the luxury zone, a group of corporate lobbyists whispered sweet nothings into delegates’ ears. Its members are the representatives of unfair trade.

And the sugar corporations were among them. The American Sugar Alliance hired a room in the Hotel Fiesta Americana to brief the press on the evening of the final day. But they were unable to defend the indefensible. They abandoned the podium as the irritated press wandered the empty halls. They had a lot to be ashamed about.

September is the stormy season in the Caribbean. As Hurricane Isabel lashed Bermuda, the WTO meeting was in a similar state of disarray. On 14 September 2003, after three days of unrelenting meetings, the conference collapsed in failure. The delegates from developing countries – including Brazil, South Africa, India and China – formed an influential new group known as the G23, which rejected the unfair terms of trade it was being asked to accept.

Each step the WTO takes towards a world of multilateral free trade is slower, less sure, more plagued by infighting, arm-twisting and stagnation. There’s a good reason for this. The rich world is pushing hard to get the poor world to open markets in goods, services and finance while ruthlessly protecting its own markets.

Nowhere is this more acrimonious than in agriculture. And no agricultural commodity sticks in the throat of those who believe in fair trade quite like sugar. The European and US sugar industries symbolize everything the G23 objected to in Cancún.

Under Europe’s subsidized sugar regime, quotas and high prices mean that European sugar sells at home at nearly three times the world market price. As a result, Europe produces far more sugar than it can consume. The rest is dumped on the international market. This depresses prices for sugar farmers elsewhere, often to levels below the costs of production in countries such as Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. Even major sugar producers like India are facing a crisis. Prices there are at a six-year low, and mills in Tamil Nadu are exporting at a loss in a bid to liquidate their overburdened stocks. The largest Northern sugar corporations – among them British Sugar, Tate & Lyle and Danisco – are by far the biggest beneficiaries.

Unfair trade

If this state of affairs sounds unfair, it’s worth putting into context. This is exactly how Europe and the US have approached all trade issues for the past 50 years. They are in competition with each other, trying to capture the ‘emerging markets’ of developing nations by fair means or foul.

Since the 1950s the US has sought to protect its own agriculture. Under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – the forerunner to the WTO – its size and power meant that it got special treatment. Rather than create one rule for them and another for the rest of the world, agricultural protection became the de facto rule for all countries. By the 1980s the US began losing markets to the EU. So Washington pushed hard to bring agriculture back under the aegis of GATT. In the GATT meeting of 1992 the US and the EU agreed a ‘Peace Clause’ – each would not attack the other’s subsidy regime. Between them they wrote – in secret and with a large amount of input from Dan Amstutz, the then Chief Executive of US agribusiness corporation Cargill – the text of what became the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. The rich countries classed their own subsidies as ‘non-trade-distorting’ and therefore legal; the developing nations had to slash their own subsidies and tariffs in the hope of gaining access to the agricultural markets of the North.

They are still waiting. Rich-world subsidies and dumping have increased, not decreased. As Action Aid points out: ‘Rich countries are paying more than $300 billion per year in subsidies to the agricultural sectors; six times more than the total amount of aid to developing countries.’

And poor farmers are angrier and more desperate than ever.

The sugar charlatans

Behind the rich world’s hypocrisy are some very influential interests in the US. But the situation in Europe is even more egregious. The sugar lobby, enormously powerful in Brussels, is dominated by monopolistic sugar-processing corporations – so much so that when the EU looked to reform its Common Agricultural Policy in early 2003 the lobby was able to prevent sugar from being included. After Cancún the EU began to look at reform of the sugar sector. Immediately, at a European Sugar Manufacturers’ Association cocktail party, the lobby declared its ‘disappointment’ and ‘alarm’. ‘Sugar has become a hot political issue,’ declared its President.

In Cancún the rich countries refused even to enter a discussion about subsidies. Europe insisted on pushing ahead with ‘new issues’ – investment, competition policy and government procurement, which are the priority for powerful corporate interests. The G23 refused to discuss anything unless Europe and the US came to the table with an offer to reform their agricultural subsidies. The negotiations duly broke down.

In Cancún the rich countries refused even to enter a discussion about subsidies

The other side of the fence

The voices of another group, however, were entirely excluded from the WTO meeting. This group argues that opening rich-world markets will not, of itself, deliver justice to the world’s poor. It could, in fact, make matters worse, if it is in exchange for further debilitating liberalization, which could prove fatal for the already beleaguered farmers of the South. In any case, as Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South says, monopolistic export industries ‘would be the main beneficiaries of greater agricultural market access to Northern markets’.

Countries like Australia, Brazil, Thailand and India, which have ‘competitive’ sugar industries, would benefit most. But there is another block – the ‘G32’ which includes Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Pakistan, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Philippines – that went virtually unnoticed in Cancún. Members of the G32 are concerned that the interests of small farmers are ignored. They argue for their right to defend vulnerable agricultural sectors from any tariff reductions at all.

Via Campesina, a global organization of small farmers and rural workers, critiqued the emphasis on market access alone: ‘It has been adopted more to justify the penetration of [Less Developed Countries – LDC] markets by EU exporters, rather [than] to give LDC farmers a genuine opportunity to sell their production in Europe… [This] is only going to strengthen the profit of large companies that use the resources and labour force of LDCs to grow cash crops aimed at the EU market. It will decrease the resources and labour force dedicated to the production of food for rural and urban populations whilst increasing food insecurity.’

The simplest message

One man had another way of putting it. ‘Korean fellow farmers and myself realized that our destinies were out of our hands,’ he said. ‘We were utterly powerless. We could do nothing but look at the waves that destroyed our lovely rural communities, settlements hundreds of years old. To make myself brave, I have tried to search out the real reasons for, and the major forces of, those waves. Reaching my conclusion… at the front gate of the WTO, I am crying out my words to you that have been boiling for so long inside my body.’

These were the words of Lee Kyung-Hae, of the Korean Farmers’ League, in March 2003. He was on hunger strike at the gates of the WTO headquarters in Geneva. In September he hung a sign that read ‘WTO kills farmers’ on the security fence that kept 10,000 protesters from reaching the Convention Centre in Cancún. Then he climbed up to the top of the fence. Facing in the direction of the WTO he cried out, drew a Swiss Army Knife, stabbed himself in the heart and fell backwards into the arms of the crowd. He died three hours later.

The simplest, starkest message from Cancún was that the WTO is killing farmers.

Katharine Ainger is a co-editor of New Internationalist.

New Internationalist issue 363 magazine cover This article is from the December 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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