The World Trade Organization's fifth ministerial opened here this morning with negotiators focused on reaching a compromise on trade in agriculture. Agriculture has been the major stumbling block in the months leading up to this round of WTO negotiations, pitting the United States and the European Union against most countries in the global south. Winning an agreement on agricultural issues is key to declaring success at the top-level international trade talks.
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At issue is whether developing countries will be forced to open their markets to heavily subsidized agricultural products from the north. These products, which sell below market price, undercut local farmers and destroy internal agricultural markets. On the table is a proposal from a group of 20 southern countries, including Brazil, China and India, to force the US and the EU to completely abolish export subsidies to their farmers in exchange for access to southern markets.
However, family farmers and campesinos gathered in Cancun say their battle is really with worldwide agribusiness, which is the main beneficiary of subsidies.
"Our basic problem is that we come from a region where we are small family farms with sustainable agriculture, in a more mountainous area and there is no way we can compete with the big multinational farming at low prices," explained Basque farmer Paul Nicholson. He added that in order to support sustainable agriculture small farmers are tying to develop local economies where they can sell directly to consumers.
Critics say agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill operate beyond national boundaries, benefiting from northern subsidies and preying on southern economies.
"Already companies like Cargill have big chicken factories in many countries and they buy our cheap corn and soy beans and turn it into cheap manufactured feed that they can ship all over the world and feed their chickens," explained George Nailer, Iowa farmer and President of the National Family Farm Coalition. "Then (Cargill) floods the markets of various countries with cheap chickens and destroys their farmers," Nailer added.
As internal markets dry up, local farmers and campesinos are being driven off their land. Many flood the cities trying to eke out a living or are forced to leave their countries. Mexico is a classic example.
Journalist and author John Ross, who has covered Mexico for three decades, says for many it is a life and death struggle.
"They can no longer make a living growing corn and farmers have abandoned their land and gotten in the immigration stream and are now coming home in coffins from the US," Ross noted referring to 283 campesinos who died in the desert trying to make it across the US border.
"More Mexican farmers have died since NAFTA came into being in 1994 than (the number of people who) died in the World Trade Center," he added.
Rosa (not her real name), a campesina from Chiapas, says she has seen many families get poorer due to free trade policies. And while borders have been closed immigrants, she says they have not kept out the genetically modified corn that has contaminated Mexican crops.
"This has everything to do with the free entry of many genetically modified products which damage our countryside. And as a result we have to survive with the low prices we get for our produce and also the destruction of our soil due to the chemicals."
Despite opposition from farmers, the pressure is on southern countries to open their markets is fierce. US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman reiterated Washington's position as the WTO negotiations opened today.
"We are here in Cancun with the same high level of ambition we had at the outset," Veneman told reporters. "We want to eliminate export subsidies, the most egregious form of trade distortion. We want to significantly expand market access. Our goal is to greatly reduce trade barriers that prevent trade and economic expansion."
Northern ministers hope that concessions they made on access to generic drugs for life threatening illnesses like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, reached in the run up to the Cancun meeting, will give them leverage in negotiating around agricultural issues.
However, if the north/south rift widens, tensions between Washington and the EU resurface and street protests heat up, negotiators will find themselves in the same volatile situation that derailed the WTO's Seattle round four years ago. Thousands of farmers have already taken to the streets in Cancun to demand the WTO stay out of agriculture. The rest of the debate will unfold behind closed doors as the trade negotiations progress this week.
Listen to the audio version of this story on Free Speech Radio News
Tim Russo is a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News