The WTO, Forests and the Spirit of Rio

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The 1992 Earth Summit raised great expectations for the future of the world's environment. The agreements coming out of that global meeting of heads of state -- Agenda 21, the Conventions on Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Desertification and the Forest Principles -- were perceived by the public as initial steps in the right direction.

But those same agreements were overshadowed three years later, when governments concluded the Uruguay Round of GATT and created the World Trade Organization (WTO), a much more powerful international body. Since its inception, the WTO has undermined the agreements reached in Rio by replacing the environmental agenda with the corporate push for indiscriminate international trade.

What communities affected by "free trade's" negative impacts and many activists said in Rio, what they continued to say at the WTO negotiations before, during and after Seattle, and what they are saying today is that international trade should be promoted if and only if it clearly results in better forest conservation. If it doesn't, it should be scrapped, they say.

Free Trade's True Impacts

These arguments are based on the objective reality of trade's impacts on the world's forests. That reality in the tropics shows that increased trade of all sorts of goods -- ranging from logs to aluminum, from shrimp to palm oil to soya beans -- results in forest destruction and the impoverishment of local communities.

For those communities, more international trade means more problems. In Sarawak, Malaysia, the Penan indigenous people barricaded roads to prevent logging aimed at the international market. "We depend on these forests for our survival... We have no choice but to stop them by force" says Penan chief Ajang Kiew Ajang.

In Guatemala, police and security guards recently killed two residents of a fishing community, Moytin Castellanos and Fernando Chiyoc, and badly injured many local people for defending their mangrove forests against export-oriented shrimp farming.

In the Philippines the army is terrorizing the local population to pave the way for large scale timber plantations for export. Joel Virador, the secretary-general of Karapatan in Southern Mindanao, has said that the new plantations would give rise to the same abuses experienced in Talaingod and elsewhere. "We are certain of that because it has been our sad history that every time certain economic interests are implemented in Mindanao, they are preceded by heavy military deployment and, consequently, abuses", he said.

In Brazil and Paraguay large expanses of forests are being substituted with soya bean crops aimed at the European market. Guyana's primary forests are being destroyed by foreign mining corporations, also for export. The list of these kinds of examples is practically endless.

However, in spite of the clear links between international trade and forest destruction, more of the same is being promoted as the "solution" to the problem. Within such an approach, the WTO is central in creating the legal framework to ensure that national governments will comply, not with forest conservation, but with opening up their forest lands to foreign investment linked to international trade.

Of course corporations are more than happy with this. In reference to the elimination of tariffs W. Henson Moore, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, laid out the industrial viewpoint prior to the Seattle WTO conference by saying: "We're thrilled [United States Trade Representative] Ambassador Barshefsky and her staff will have ATL [accelerated tariff liberalization] on a front burner out in Seattle." He was probably less "thrilled" with the outcome of that meeting.

The implementation of the corporate agenda is expressed in anticeptic terms such as "ATL" and the "removal of tariff and non tariff barriers" to trade in forest products. This obscure wording hides the enormous social and environmental devastation that free trade entails.

Among other things, it will result in cheaper forest products, thereby increasing consumption, which is precisely the opposite of what the world's endangered forests need. It will also result in governments having to open up their countries' forests to transnational corporations with no long term interest in conserving those forests, but bent on achieving the highest profits possible. It will imply that national laws aimed at forest protection or at creating more jobs through the banning of exports of non-processed logs will be considered "non-tariff barriers to trade" and thus subject to legal sanctions. The same could happen with eco-labeling. In all cases, national governments would be made to comply with WTO rules even against the needs of their own populations.

Free Trade vs. Sustainable Development

The reasons the WTO agenda has run so roughshod over the globally agreed upon need to conserve the world's forests are rooted in the 1992 Earth Summit. In fact, the WTO agenda was already present in Rio, which partially explains why no real agreements on forest protection were reached there and why the Forest Principles are not legally binding. Instead the Rio agreements paradoxically reflect both the positions: the stance of those honestly trying to achieve forest conservation and the interests of logging-trade lobby.

For instance, the Forest Principles state that "forests are essential to economic development and the maintenance of all forms of life" and that "forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations." Additionally, they stress the need for "a supportive international economic climate conducive to sustained and environmentally sound development of forests in all countries," including "the promotion of sustainable patterns of production and consumption, the eradication of poverty and the promotion of food security." All the above can probably be supported by everyone concerned with ensuring the conservation of forests.

On the other hand, the international trade lobby did their work well and managed to include their own strategic thinking. The Forest Principles go on to state that "trade in forest products should be based on non-discriminatory and multilaterally agreed rules and procedures consistent with international trade law and practices. In this context, open and free international trade in forest products should be facilitated." This can be understood as meaning increasing international trade, under the rules and procedures of what some years later became the World Trade Organization. In fact, in a tremendous contradiction, much of the Earth Summit language equates "free trade" with "sustainable development."

While the Forest Principles should be in line with the spirit of the Earth Summit -- and with its legally-binding conventions -- which express humanity's desire to protect the world's forests, environmentally destructive free trade is, in many respects, winning out.

One of the reasons free traders have gained the upper hand is that there is currently a legal hierarchy, ranging from "soft" to "strong" international law. The Rio Conventions are considered as being "soft" laws that may or may not be complied with (and the Forest Principles are not even a law). Meanwhile the WTO represents law that will be effectively enforced through tough economic sanctions. This discrepancy is obviously unacceptable to environmentalists and forest communities.

The WTO must be made to work within the existing international law, which includes a large number of social and environmental agreements. Within the Earth Summit framework alone, this means complying with the three conventions: biodiversity, climate change and desertification.

Given that deforestation and forest degradation result in a loss of biodiversity, in increased carbon dioxide emissions and in desertification, it is clear that the WTO should not promote international trade that results in forest loss, because it would be contrary to the aims of the legally-binding Rio conventions.

The Spirit of Seattle and the Spirit of Rio

Regardless of the obvious difficulties involved in subordinating the WTO to environmentally sustainable and socially just development, what's wrong needs to be changed. Bringing back the spirit of Rio may prove to be a good starting point to begin the necessary transformation of the WTO.

What happened in Seattle in 1999 was clearly an expression of that same spirit, as thousands of people, young and old, from all over the world successfully challenged the WTO's plans to become the global hegemonic player, deciding the Planet's future on corporate terms.

However, it is important to stress that Seattle didn't just "happen." It was the result of many years of work by many people, from the local to the global level, which raised the necessary awareness about the issues and the necessary organization to effectively oppose it.

While the WTO tries to out-maneuver the opposition movement by deciding to meet in Qatar -- now probably not perceived as the safe haven it was thought to be at the time -- people around the world continue working to change what's wrong, from opposing forest destruction resulting from logging, dam building, mining, shrimp farming, export-oriented crops, to creating alternatives to the prevailing corporate model.

Ten years after Rio, people representing those movements will also return to Earth Summit II next year in South Africa. This will be an unique opportunity for bringing back the spirit of Rio and taking on the socially and environmentally destructive forces represented by the WTO.

CorpWatch's 2001 coverage of the WTO was made possible through the
generous support of the Humanitarian Group for Social Development.

Ricardo Carrere, a forester by training, is the International Coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement, an international network of citizens' groups of North and South involved in efforts to defend the world's rainforests and the lands and livelihoods of forest people.

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