The "World Theft Organization," some activists called it. "Pirates of the Caribbean," wrote a Catholic relief group. What did the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun last September, the second of the last three WTO summits to break up in disarray, do to deserve such words? It let the world’s richest nations, once again, monopolize its agenda and brazenly demand a deal that would hurt the world’s poorest people, particularly farmers. Developing nations and grassroots organizers refused to stand for it, choosing no deal rather than a bad deal.
The coming months are a key time to see whether alliances forged in Cancun will enable fair trade advocates to stand against the Bush administration as, after its WTO setback, it pressures countries one by one to sign onto regional or two-country trade agreements.
The main issue at Cancun was the fate of the developing world’s 2.5 billion peasant farmers. Many of these face ruin because the United States, Europe, and Japan heavily subsidize their own farm sectors, causing them to "dump" products below cost and drive down world prices. (In the United States, much of this subsidy benefits agribusiness corporations rather than small farmers.) Farm subsidies are the opposite of foreign aid—and the developed world now pays itself $320 billion a year in farm subsidies, more than six times as much as it spends on development assistance to poor countries.
Developing countries used to protect their farmers by taxing crop imports, but lopsided WTO agreements, and pressure from institutions such as the IMF, have slashed this option in the Third World (while leaving many First World tariffs intact). The WTO promised the Philippines when it joined in 1995 that membership would bring half a million new farm jobs, but the country has actually lost hundreds of thousands such jobs. Mexico, flooded with dumped corn imports under NAFTA, is in a similar bind. "A farmer who is working with the land in Oaxaca [Mexico] knows in his soul what [unfair trade policy] feels like," says Marie Dennis of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.
ACROSS THE DEVELOPING world, many people—including very poor people—have a firm understanding of how trade agreements affect their lives, and those people organized themselves enough to make their governments pay some heed in Cancun. Working alongside them were international groups, including religious organizations whose work with the poor spurred them to care about trade pacts.
On the national level Brazil, with its history of social justice movements and its populist president "Lula" da Silva, was a leader in the Cancun alliance for fairer farm policy. A coalition from Brazil plus 20 other countries, representing half the world’s people, refused to open their markets still more to dumped food from wealthy nations (while other coalitions refused to toe the U.S. and European line on other issues, such as giving sweeping new rights to foreign investors).
What’s next? Rebuffed (for now) in the global arena, the United States will pursue a divide-and-conquer approach. The Bush administration plans to "aggressively" focus on bilateral trade agreements, such as the one recently signed with Chile, and regional agreements such as the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement (slated to go to Congress in early 2004), and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (scheduled for 2005). It remains to be seen how much future cooperation will arise from the developing-country alliances formed at the WTO.
During this key time, activists for fair trade are working with renewed energy on every possible level—dialogue with negotiators, pressure on government officials, and of course grassroots awareness and organizing. One of their goals is to question the WTO’s claim that the poor will benefit from the "level playing field" of unrestrained free trade. Unfortunately, a level playing field isn’t much help for small Third World businesses and family farms pitted against transnational corporate giants. This is no recipe for development. It deprives elected governments of power to shape their own economic policies and hands that power over to unaccountable technocrats from the corporate world.
No one is more aware of the need for trade justice than Jesús Leon, a Mexican campesino who attended the Cancun meeting as a delegate from Maryknoll. According to Leon, the WTO affects "everyone, but most of all peasants and grain farmers"—and, if the international community agrees to unjust trade agreements, it may be the end of many rural communities.
Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners.