World Trade talks to restart, peasants want WTO off the farm

GENEVA, Switzerland, December 15, 2003 (ENS): The World Trade Organization appears ready to resume negotiations after ministerial talks collapsed in Cancun last September. At a meeting of country delegates in the WTO General Council today, the organization's two top officials said it is now time to reactivate negotiating groups and get the Doha round of talks back on track early in the new year.

The WTO officials presented agriculture as one of four key points of negotiation to resume, but 44 civil society organizations presented the WTO with a letter urging the organization to stay out of the food and agriculture sectors.

WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand and WTO General Council Chairperson Carlos Pérez del Castillo of Uruguay told delegates that they have both been engaged in an intensive round of consultations with member governments, in Geneva and in national capitals. Their efforts to get the stalled negotiations moving forward have met with positive responses, both officials said.

"We had sensed that there was a willingness on all sides to get back to work in line with the mandate agreed by ministers at Cancún," Pérez del Castillo said. "All delegations continued to support a strong and reinforced multilateral trading system and expressed willingness to engage and show the necessary flexibility in order to get the process back on track."

“We have made progress towards getting the round back on track, and there is a firm commitment to do so by all members. However, we are not yet there, he said.

Panitchpakdi told the delegates, "Reactivating the negotiating groups and other bodies will not automatically translate into further progress, unless delegations engage constructively and show a genuine willingness to negotiate. Our collective task is indeed to find that elusive link between political will and concrete progress."

This round of trade liberalization talks is called the Doha Development Agenda after the November 2001 declaration of the WTO's Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar, which provides the mandate for negotiations.

Pérez del Castillo told the General Council today that consultations over the past two months have explored in turn "each of the four key outstanding issues, namely agriculture, cotton, non-agricultural market access and the Singapore issues."

Agriculture, he said, has an "important central role" but requires "a large amount of work" to reach agreement. "We are all aware that positive results on agriculture will have positive implications in other areas." WTO members agreed to use as a starting point for reducing tariffs on agricultural products a draft from Cancun prepared by Ministerial Chair Luis Ernesto Derbez of Mexico, commonly called the Derbez text.

The Derbez text holds that countries the domestic subsidies that distort agricultural trade the most should be the focus of the greatest reductions in tariff barriers. This is a principle supported by the United States, but opposed by India because it requires steeper reductions of high tariffs than low tariffs.

But the civil society groups, speaking for rural peasants and independent family farmers, demanded in their letter that the WTO remove itself from the agricultural arena altogether.

They say that current trade liberalization policies focus on increasing exports that "satisfy the needs of corporations and threaten the livelihoods of the poorest."

"Trade negotiators think it acceptable to sacrifice local food production and consumption, and the livelihoods of millions of farmers, in return for increased access to international markets for their main exporters," says Anuradha Mittal, codirector of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.

"But social movements around the world claim that control of world's food supply can not and must not lie in the hands of an unaccountable, undemocratic and non-transparent body, such as the World Trade Organization," said Mittal.

The peasants, family farmers, fisherfolk and their supporters represented by the 44 groups that signed the WTO letter propose "People's Food Sovereignty" as the preferred alternative to the positions taken by the industrialized and the developing countries.

"Food sovereignty is a commonsense idea that every one can understand," said George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "The values embodied in the traditions of farm communities around the world - respect for nature, history, families and neighbors - cannot be measured in dollars or economic efficiency, and should not be sacrificed for the profits of multinational grain traders, processors, and retailers."

From his perspective, WTO General Council Chairperson Pérez del Castillo told delegates today that the idea of a "common approach" to market access for both developed and developing countries seems now to be gaining ground.

The formula would have to incorporate "a clear differentiation through special and differential treatment, in order to take care of the development, food security and/or livelihood security needs of developing countries," he said.

But this approach, although sensitive to the needs of developing countries, is not satisfactory to the civil society groups. "Negotiations in the WTO ... are not concerned with the everyday struggles of peoples' lives," the groups said in their letter.

"It never seems to occur to these officials that the liberalization process itself is fundamentally flawed, working in favor of commerce but against the needs of families, communities, small businesses and the environment," they wrote.

The various southern country groupings have all basically accepted that negotiations should continue on the basis of the Derbez text, the civil society groups acknowledge in their letter, but they point out that this text was rejected by these same governments at Cancun. They say the Derbez text is "designed to meet the interests of those EU/US based corporations that already dominate global trade in food and agriculture."

Instead, they say, the People's Food Sovereignty approach would, "control imports and manage supply, to guarantee stable prices covering the cost of production." This approach would address the fundamental problem that farmers everywhere in the world, including in the U.S. and Europe, face prices below their costs of production.

Instead of joining in one world system that governs agriculture and food, the civil society groups say, "Governments should be free to apply measures, including import quotas, price band systems and import tariffs, in order to control food imports."

They say, "Stop direct and indirect export subsidies. Target public subsidies towards peasants, farmers and fisherfolk, who need them most."

At least on this point Pérez del Castillo agrees. "I have stated it before and I repeat it today," he told the General Council delegates, "that I feel this commitment to the elimination of all forms of export subsidies is a must for these negotiations to be successful, although I am aware of the difficulties that some members may have at present to make definitive commitments to that effect."

The 44 groups jointly are asking national governments to "protect domestic food production and distribution, and to claim the right to apply these measures as a fundamental human right that cannot be traded off against other concessions."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights Reserved

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