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
"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
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
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."
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