Grassroots Journal, September 12
Day three: Brother Dave gets stuck in traffic but we get our update

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.

Security takes more time, fares…ag concentration hurts…international connections

By Br. David Andrews

Brother Andrews is active throughout the U.S., spearheading the NCRLC in its advocacy of policy issues relative to farming and food.

September 12: This morning it took two hours to get from our downtown residence to the NGO center at the Sierra Hotel. Increased security measures mean that now we have to go downtown via the longest route possible. The only entry point to the hotel district of the WTO activity is a lengthy roundabout, filled with traffic and very expensive, more than twice the cost of getting back and forth to our in-town hotel...$200 pesos compared to $80 before.

And the long trip means lost time in the meetings for which we've come here. NCRLC gave a presentation late Thursday to a largely European constituency on the situation of the concentration in agriculture in the U.S. Our situation was paired with the plights of producers of Peruvian coffee and West African cotton. The commonality was the consolidation impacts in processing and retail on prices producers receive.

We are finding a similar analysis from people we've never related to or connected with before, helping create more effective worldwide solidarity. The host of the meeting, Bill Vorley from the United Kingdom, graciously promoted NCRLC's partnership with the Center of Concern in the Agribusines Accountability Initiative* and the other efforts of NCRLC.

Bob (Gronski) and I attended a session last evening on an alternative way of looking at subsidies hosted by Institute of Agricultural Trade Policy (IATP). It was an occasion for speaking with many of our NGO partners informally as well as for cementing some common perspectives.

We also visited with Jim Hug and Sister Maria Reilly of the Center of Concern, comparing notes on what we've heard regarding various trends in the negotiations.

Today we're working on getting closer contacts with Via Campesina, getting a briefing or two on the substance of agriculture negotiations, and doing more networking.

The weather is hot and humid. We had a break in the weather yesterday with some heavy rains.

Best wishes, Brother Dave

* For more information on AAI (www.agribusinessaccountability.org)

Asking the right questions…what about Congress…drama on the barricades

By: Robert Gronski, NCRLC

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

Thursday morning, September 11, 2003: Every day at 4 p.m., staffers of the U.S. Trade Representative provide a briefing for non-governmental organization (NGO) participants in the packed conference room at the Gran Caribe Hotel. At the end, we get to ask questions.

The spokesman for Ambassador Robert Zoellick repeated on Wednesday that the U.S.
administration line that the United States is "very willing to cut subsidies if others do so as well." No doubt this is referring to the European Union. Then a few minutes later, the spokesman added that cuts or eliminations in American subsidies are also dependent on "gaining market access overseas.”

It is interesting to note a contrast: At the NGO sessions running in the shadows of the WTO ministerial meetings, discussions often focus on the high levels of agricultural subsidies for nations of the North. This is the "problem" that must be dealt with. Whereas the "problem" in the eyes of the U.S. authorities is market access -- by the North into the South, not vice versa as would seem to be a very big problem as well.

Speaking of problems, a couple questions from NGO participants were directed at
the so-called consensus surrounding the U.S. negotiations.

How can the Trade Representative offer to reduce agricultural subsidies when that decision rests in the hands of the U.S. Congress? Has the Administration come to some type of agreement with Senate and House agricultural leaders?

The spokesman did not say such an agreement had been reached, but it was certainly part of the ongoing discussions between the Administration and Congress. Then Br. Dave Andrews posed a follow-up question: “Can we see a list of the "Ag Trade Coalition"
members?” (This is a body put together to advise the US Administration; it seems
to be composed of Senate and House agricultural committee members, plus corporate agribusiness officials and perhaps a couple actual farmers.)

The spokesman responded that this should be possible, but no clear indication of
when or how this list would be made available.

Our routine, then, is to continue to show up at these briefings and continue to ask such questions of the Administration. If not much seems to come out of the answers to our questions, at least our presence is made apparent. Indeed, someone belonging to an animal welfare group came up to Br. Dave later and wanted to hear more about the work of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. (Humane treatment of animals and livestock is a trade issue, and in fact has been part of the briefing reports.)

Later in the evening, Br. Dave and I attended the opening reception of the Fair
Trade Fair. This three-day event is a combination of small producers from
around Mexico and the Central American region who are displaying their products
and a series of open forums on socially just and fair trade issues.

We caught up with many of our friends in our sustainable agriculture and family farm
networks. The outdoor event was festive, but muted by a couple of developments
during the day. One was the increased security presence, including a checkpoint set up right next to the Fair Trade Fair venue. However, this did not seem to prevent a good turn out to the opening ceremony.

Second was the demonstration at the main entry road to the "hotel zone" and WTO
conference area. Mexican students and trade union groups made up the largest groups. Efforts were made to tear down the security fences blocking the road, and though some feared a strong response from the Federal Police, no tear gas or other strong-armed action occurred.

The most dramatic moments came from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, who paraded with drums and a coffin. Then to the utter disbelief of the crowd, one of the Korean demonstrators committed hari-kari, plunging a knife into his side. This became the morning headline of local newspapers.

When Br. Dave and I passed by the area later that night, police still controlled the movement of cars and buses, but there was little indication of a mass protest. Some of the damaged fencing was being hauled away, and only a few banners remained. The next large demonstration is planned for Saturday, September 13, when word of WTO negotiations and agreements should be widely known.

The closing ceremonies are Sunday, and it is far from certain what the governments of 40 WTO members will achieve at their fifth ministerial meeting. Many continue to say that no agreement is better than a bad one.

--Robert Gronski