Grassroots Journal, September 8-10
Sustainable farming advocates recount first days at Cancun

By Br. David Andrews and Robert Gronski


Working outside of the formal meetings at Cancun are hundreds of leaders from farmer, farmworker, environmental, human rights and food advocacy groups. One of them is the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) of Des Moines IA. Participating on their behalf is Br. David Andrews, CSC, executive director, and Robert Gronski, the group’s rural life policy coordinator.


Arrival in Cancun… meeting U.S. policy... making connections… security becomes more intense

By: Br. David Andrews

Brother Andrews is active throughout the U.S., spearheading the NCRLC in its advocacy of sustainable farming, social justice for rural people, earth stewardship and policy issues relative to farming and food.

Monday, Sept 8: Hello from Cancun. We arrived today for our WTO sojourn, safe and sound and legal despite last-minute travel excitement.

I was fortunate on Sunday to have been in Washington, D.C., at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception where NCRLC was given the Mnsgr. George Higgins Labor Award. ( This was wonderful motivation for coming to Mexico to work for justice and fairness, especially for farmers and agricultural workers.

Bob Gronski (NCRLC Rural Life Policy Coordinator) and I are in a hotel outside the zone of the WTO, amidst the ordinary people of Cancun. We began our networking with a visit to John Dittrich of the American Corn Growers. We agreed to help him distribute a new study on the U.S. grain trade, authored by Darryl Ray from the University of Tennessee. We touched base with four delegates from the National Farmers Union (NFU) who hail from Colorado, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Tuesday, Sept. 9: In a briefing from Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell, and Patrick Mooney on biotechnology, we learned that the U.S. and Europe are in some agreement on biotechnology protocols. They are pressuring the most vulnerable nations in the global south to go along.

A big issue is the U.S.-led push to have the proposed WTO agreements trump the UN biodiversity protocol, which comes into effect this Thursday -- Sept. 11. The U.S. position seems to be that trade trumps the environment, the welfare of people, the defense of nature.

We also met delegates from the Center of Concern, who had been briefed by the Third World Network representatives. We learned that the U.S. is using its top negotiators to get these nations to accept all of the U.S. positions. This makes it appear unlikely that proposals that are socially concerned, environmentally sound, economically fair will survive this WTO round. They face the full force of the U.S. brought to bear on the hold-out counties, especially those of Africa and Latin America. The U.S. is saying get on board or watch out!

Wednesday, Sept. 10 (morning): Tuesday was a busy day of meetings, finding our way, catching up with friends from the various food, farm, faith networks. Bob Gronski and I managed to catch up with Father Randy (Redemptorist from Maine) and Quenton (excuse my lack of last names) an African-American farmer from Macon, Georgia.

Both are here with the Rural Coalition/Coalition Rural, an organization that works for justice, especially for minority farmers in the U.S. and Mexico. Also we had dinner with Andrew Bartlett of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Rural Coalition, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and NCRLC are all members of an ecumenical organization called Agricultural Missions. AM provides community development grants to small farmers around the world. They also arrange tours of third-world farmers in the developed world.

Our conversation was an opportunity to find out where "ad hoc" meetings are taking place on food sovereignty and environmental issues. We figured out where people are staying so we can be in contact.

Tuesday was a day of getting acclimated.

Today, Wednesday, the level of security is much higher with police, troops, and check points all along the way. We had no trouble getting through though to begin our full day of attending presentations from the NGO community on food sovereignty, food security, agricultural trade. We hope to catch up today with friends from Maryknoll in Mexico, the National Family Farm Coalition, and from other farm organizations.

Don't forget to say a prayer for fair and just trade.

-- Brother Dave Andrews, CSC

Br. David Andrews, CSC, is executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), Des Moines IA The NCRLC seeks a living community in which people and the natural world are given the respect deserving of their creation by a loving God


People’s groups gather…defending food sovereignty…U.S. statements…prayer for focus

By: Robert Gronski

Gronski works with projects and policy issues, including efforts to develop a “water ethic” in the face of a global shortage fresh water.

Tuesday, Sept 9 (evening): Today (Tuesday) was our first full day in Cancun. After we got our WTO accreditation passes, we went to nearby hotel which served as the official NGO (non-governmental organizations) communications center. Participants can collect information, find cold water or coffee, meet friends, and log on to the Web on dozens of open-access computers. The room was also air conditioned, which refreshed us after the 90 F, 90 percent humidity weather outside.

We attended a biotechnology briefing moderated by Vandana Shiva, the well-known Indian farmer organizer and GMO opponent. Others there were Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment, Pat Mooney of the Canadian ETC Group, and Caroline Lucas, a Green Member of the European Parliament.

They were calling for an international sign-on for an amicus brief in response to the U.S. administration’s suit against the European Union. The U.S. is trying to force the lifting of the EU moratorium on genetically modified food varieties. The suit was brought at the WTO level, so it was only fitting that NGO groups organize at this Cancun ministerial meeting to fight back.

The brief includes this call: Given the abundance of alternatives, the risks that GM crops pose to the environment and human health, the existing U.N. Biosafety Protocol, scientific uncertainty on GMO impact, and the lack of any socio-economic advantages, we declare that this use of the WTO dispute settlement system for imposing GM food on the world is totally illegitimate. We also declare our support for the right of all citizens to choose safe food, and the duty of governments to protect the health of their people and their environments by refusing GM food.

The National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) will sign on to this brief, and will post directions for others to sign on at its Web site next week.

Br. Dave and I attended the first briefing of the office of the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. These are being set up for the benefit of American NGOs, providing both highlights of Zoellick’s meetings, announcements and time for questions from the audience.

Zoellick apparently has been busy since Sunday, meeting late into the evening with various country representatives. President Bush has been busy calling national leaders on the telephone, particularly Brazil, India, Pakistan and South Africa. Some NGOs believed this might have been an arm-twisting tactic, but the USTR spokesman said the President was “simply staying engaged” in a process that had much to offer to the developing world. The process, we were told, was to a create “a world that trades in freedom.”

In response to a question from the audience on the demonstrable social benefits of WTO policies for poor countries, the USTR answer was (predictably) all assurances that indeed the U.S. is concerned about fair and equitable benefits.

Only 200 NGO representatives will be allowed inside the official meetings. There was talk of a silent protest Wednesday during the fine government speeches. The word on the street, however, is that security would be tight and such protests -- even a simple one like this -- would be stopped one way or another.

Br. Dave offered a blessing on our evening meal, and asked for guidance in staying focused over the next few days. We all said “amen” to that, even as outside we knew that the tightening security presence was growing.

Truck loads of military personnel filled the streets along with the buses of official delegates and NGO participants. Metal fences and gates were being set up, and check points would likely slow us down tomorrow. But the full moon was rising over the Cancun lagoon, so we enjoyed this pleasant moment and ended the day in peace.

-- Robert Gronski