Saskatchewan, Canada, July 28, 2004:
When talks on the liberalization of world trade began a couple
decades back, the U.S. and the European Community set the
agenda. Smaller players like Canada were mostly confined to
supporting roles as they kowtowed to the big guys and bought
all the fertilizer they doled out in the form of promises.
Poor countries had little to say and were largely ignored
in the process. As a result, the Uruguay round of trade talks
gave the advantage to rich countries and, by the admission
of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., hurt
The silence of the lambs changed dramatically in September,
2003, with the collapse of the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico.
That meeting saw a group of developing countries, calling
itself the G21 and led by Brazil, India and China, demand
an end to the dumping of subsidized agricultural goods by
rich nations. The G21 simultaneously asked for access to the
markets of rich countries, while refusing to countenance lowering
their own tariffs against agricultural imports.
Cotton became the subject of one of the major battles at
Cancun, and a symbol of the problems with agricultural trade.
With American cotton farmers receiving an average of $230
per acre in subsidies, cotton from the U.S. has driven down
the world price of a commodity that was the backbone of the
economies of some of the world's poorest countries.
It must have been a rude awakening for the world powers when
upstart Third World countries began to flex their collective
muscle. But it was inevitable.
The notion of global trade and a global economy have become
inextricably linked with the concept of Intellectual Property
Rights. Progress at trade liberalization has been linked to
the adoption by countries of a patent and property rights
regime like that of the U.S. and the E.U.
Patent laws have done little to benefit poor countries. The
most striking example of this involves the AIDS epidemic.
Multinational pharmaceutical companies hold patents on drugs
that can bring immense relief to AIDS sufferers. While these
drugs can be produced for pennies, the companies that control
the patents charge thousands of dollars a year to those who
can afford to buy them. Millions of Africans are dying from
what is now a treatable disease because the cost of AIDS drugs
is vastly beyond the modest means of their governments. Counties
that have signed international treaties on patents are told
they must watch their citizens die, even though they possess
the resources to make cheap copies of AIDS drugs.
Trade liberalization is about opening the world up to the
control of multinational companies and removing the control
of governments. If it worked in practice as it does in theory,
that might, at times, be a good thing between developed countries.
(It rarely, however, works that way, as Canadian lumber producers
and cattle ranchers have found out.)
When applied between poor and rich countries, the practice
is even further from the theory. Recognizing that multinational
pharmaceutical companies were not about to save the lives
of millions of AIDS victims, countries like India began to
make their own AIDS drugs, and were subject to immediate pressure
from the likes of the U.S. and Britain.
I suspect that their experience with AIDS taught many poor
countries that they better begin to speak with a united voice
at world forums. Hence the unexpected turn at Cancun.
Nor is this likely to change soon. India declared recently
that it would not allow the livelihood of its 600 million
small and subsistence farmers to be destroyed by concessions
at the WTO table. This is a practical move on India's part.
What would it do with the 550 million farmers that could be
driven off the land if food grown with large government subsidies
were allowed free access to Indian markets?
The WTO talks on agriculture are close to stalling completely.
Rich countries still have a few tricks up their sleeves, however.
One is the American model. When global talks fail, negotiate
separate agreements with countries. Use your economic power
to get your way where diplomacy fails. Before those counties
sign on the dotted line, they should consult with Canada.
We could tell them a few things about how the U.S. honors
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.