World's Trade Ministers Struggle to Agree in Cancun

CANCUN, Mexico, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - Trade in agriculture, said by the World Bank to be "the most important and politically contentious sector for global poverty reduction," is at the center of talks at the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization taking place this week in Cancun.

Ministers from 146 countries are reviewing progress of the WTO's Doha Development Agenda, the current round of negotiations aimed at liberalizing the rules under which nations trade with one another. But in the streets of Cancun, protesters are marching to dramatize their opposition to the corporatization of natural resources and environmental destruction in the name of profit.

The November 2001 declaration of the Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, provides the mandate for the current negotiations, which are supposed to be completed by January 1, 2005.


U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick (left) meets with Indian Trade-Industry Minister Arun Jaitley in Cancun. (Photo courtesy USTR)
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told reporters Tuesday in Cancun that the U.S. has an "ambitious" agenda for agricultural trade reform. "We want to eliminate export subsidies," Zoellick said. "We're willing to cut our domestic support subsidies. We are willing to cut our domestic support significantly if we can get market access on others. But all three pillars have to move together."

Dr. Franz Fischler, the European commissioner responsible for agriculture, rural development and fisheries, told reporters at a separate news conference that the European Union has come to Cancun to make this meeting a success. "We have fundamentally reformed our farm policy to make it much less trade distorting, more competitive and more in tune with the environment," Fischler said.

"We have agreed on a joint framework on agriculture with the United States. This is what WTO members asked for at the Montreal Mini Ministerial. We have delivered. But this framework should not be seen as a stitch-up between the two big elephants," Fischler said. "We have assumed our responsibility to inject new life in the farm talks. This will be to the benefit of all players."

Zoellick said the United States is working within the WTO to lower tariffs on some environmental goods and services. "This obviously helps boost trade but also can help lower the costs of environmental protection and promotion."

Overfishing is an issue of concern for the United States, Zoellick told reporters. "Overfishing is bad economic policy and it is also very bad environmental policy. And we're pleased that over the past couple of years changes in the European Union have led the European Union to join us in a major effort along with the Friends of Fish to try to prevent overfishing, which is bad for the stocks as well as for the economics," he said.

But protesters in dolphin suits flooded the streets of Cancun today in a demonstration organized by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) based in Washington, DC, demanding that the WTO negotiations embrace protection of wildlife and the humane treatment of animals. Dolphins are the symbolic poster child of free trade run amok, the organizers said, and they worry that land animals as well as marine creatures are being decimated by economic pressures.

“We are terribly concerned that the United States Trade Representative will continue working behind the scenes to open up the global market even further for products from barbaric animal factories here in the United States,” said Wendy Swann, AWI’s research associate for farm animals.

“If the U.S. succeeds, countless pigs, cows, and other livestock with suffer tremendous cruelty by corporate agribusiness, while the U.S. floods the global market with cheap meat, undercutting the ability of local family farmers to subsist.” The AWI wants animal welfare included under “greenbox” subsidies, which are protected from WTO pressure.

The WTO negotiations are officially a stock taking exercise, but they are taking place at a time when the global economy is stagnating. Progress in Cancun could boost investor confidence, and create momentum towards a WTO agreement that would spur trade.

"The talks are approaching a critical juncture," says Uri Dadush, director of the Trade Department at the World Bank. "If ministers can reach an agreement to reduce trade barriers affecting the products that poor people produce - especially farm products and labor intensive manufactures, it would help raise their standard of living. If not, an opportunity will be lost. "


Delegates, press, and NGO representatives at the United States opening press conference Tuesday in Cancun (Photo courtesy USTR)
Common themes of speakers at today's opening of the ministerial meeting were the importance of agreements regarding agriculture, the need to assist developing countries to fight poverty, and the importance of the success of these meetings.

But not everyone in Cancun believes that progress towards completing the Doha agenda on time would help reduce poverty or enhance environmental protection. Soon after the opening statements began, several dozen protesters stood silently in the hall with tape over their mouths holding up signs saying “WTO – OBSOLETTE.” They began chanting in protest, but the statements continued and the group peacefully dispersed.

Rubens Ricupero, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, delivered an address on behalf of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan which struck a note of sadness. "Instead of open markets, there are too many barriers that stunt, stifle and starve," he said. "Instead of fair competition, there are subsidies by rich countries that tilt the playing field against the poor. And instead of global rules negotiated by all, in the interest of all, and adhered to by all, there is too much closed door decisionmaking, too much protection of special interests, and too many broken promises.”

"The damage," Annan said in his message, "is profound, and the victims can be counted in the billions."

The World Trade Organization is reaching out to United Nations agencies for help in bringing developing nations out of poverty. Today in Cancun, WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand and Carlos Magariños, director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) signed an agreement which will provide a framework for the two organizations to work more closely together to help developing countries participate meaningfully in international trade.

“The success of the Doha Development Agenda is critical for the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals,” said Dr. Supachai. “When it comes to technical assistance and capacity building, strengthening capacities to negotiate and implement WTO rules is not enough. Success will only come through result oriented coordination with other agencies, like UNIDO, the UN specialized agency with the mandate to assist with the development of the productive capacities of industry.”

Magariños said, "In addition to capacities relating to the multilateral trading system, developing countries need capacities to produce competitive exportable products that conform to international standards. That is where UNIDO comes in. This agreement is a milestone for the developing countries, and for UNIDO.”

But Friends of the Earth International warned in a statement today that the World Trade Organization is "trading away the environment." Governments are negotiating at the WTO on the relationship between global environmental agreements and WTO rules, the group said. "However, the WTO has no mandate to rule over international environmental governance in general and specifically not over the multilateral environmental agreements."

Negotiations on the relationship between multilateral environmental agreements and trade rules were launched in Doha in 2001.


Protesters and police face each other over a barricade in Cancun today. (Photo courtesy Indymedia)
There are some 200 multilateral environmental agreements in place today, many of which contain provisions related to trade and trade rules. They include the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates trade in genetically modified organisms and enters into force on September 11.

The Basel Convention which controls trade or transportation of hazardous waste across international borders, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants are other examples.

U.S. Trade Representative Zoellick said Tuesday that ministers in Cancun will be "trying to strengthen the network between the WTO and the multilateral environmental agreements, or the MEAs, which have secretariats. And so one of the issues to be discussed here will be the informal relationship that's developed."

But Miriam Behrens of Friends of the Earth International said today that negotiations on the relationship between WTO rules and MEAs should be transferred to the United Nations immediately. “Trade measures in environmental agreements are amongst the most effective instruments to ensure that key objectives of MEAs are met," she said. "As a consequence, MEAs must not be subordinated to the WTO trade rules and their autonomy and authority must be recognized."

While talks in Cancun move along in their measured pace, elsewhere in the world, protesters against the WTO negotiations are making their views known more dramatically.

In Kolkata, India today more than thousand cadres from the Centre for Indian Trade Unions took to the streets shouting anti-WTO slogans, protesting what they termed the exploitation of developing countries by western nations. The protestors said countries like India face unfair competition because of subsidies paid to farmers in the United States, the European Union and Japan.

Violence marred WTO protest actions in Manila today, when riot police dispersed more than 500 militant workers and farmers who tried to march to the presidential palace after a peaceful rally outside the U.S. embassy. Six people were arrested. Several protesters who sustained head injuries were taken to Manila hospitals for treatment.

Anti-WTO activists in Italy disrupted a European Union summit on Friday, and more than 15,000 demonstrators participated in a mass rally on Saturday.

Activists in Switzerland climbed onto the roof of the WTO Secretariat in Geneva on Friday and dropped a banner reading "Smash Capitalism, Let's start with the WTO."

The U.S. public interest advocacy organization Public Citizen, based in Washington, DC, today detailed what many WTO critics are trying to bring to the attention of the world with their marches and demonstrations.

"When WTO negotiators say they want to liberalize trade in services, public interest groups hear the agenda of multinational corporations seeking to privatize healthcare and education," Public Citizen explained.

"When WTO negotiators say it's necessary to protect investment, civil society organizations glimpse a plan to allow corporations to sue national governments for any regulations that may impact profits, dramatically undercutting the powers of elected officials. And when WTO negotiators resist any attempts to address labor or environmental concerns, advocacy groups see a powerful international organization that puts profit making above any other competing value."

"Most WTO critics aren't afraid of globalization," said Public Citizen. "They're afraid of corporations manipulating the happy language of trade to advance a deregulatory scheme that will destroy any remaining corporate accountability laws."