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World's farmers stand in solidarity against WTO

by James Goodman
Dairy farmer

(Monday, Nov. 3, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- U.S. Trade Minister Robert Zoellick and European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy were both feeling rather miffed after the World Trade Organization ministerial meetings in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed last month. It was all supposed to go their way, after all. They had always had their way; the economic power of the United States and European Union were not to be challenged. But the bullies lost their grip; their best-laid plans swept aside by the "G-20 " - a group of developing nations that said, "No more; listen to our needs," and then walked out of the meetings.

Robert Zoellick had held Mexico up as an example of a nation that had benefited greatly from global trade through creation of new jobs and increased incomes. I wondered whom he had heard that from. Did he ever talk to any of the Mexican campesinos that were kept miles away from him by the barricades? Did he ever talk to any of the Mexicans whose farms were lost because global trade allowed cheap grains to undercut their sales? Did he ever talk to any of the Korean rice farmers whose lives and culture had been ruined by imports from the United States? Did he ever talk to any grain farmers from the American Midwest who saw their prices falling year after year after year?

I doubt he ever saw or heard the little people, the campesinos who packed onto buses for the trip to Cancun. He never saw how they slept in the dirt around the Cultural Center while the air conditioner barely made a whisper in his five-star hotel room. He never saw the farmers that the WTO had supposedly pulled out of poverty scrambling for a plastic bag full of warm drinking water as they readied themselves to march on the barricades that separated him from them.

No, I doubt Mr. Zoellick and the Bush administration ever saw, much less cared; these farmers were expendable, mere cannon fodder for global trade and corporate profit. But they all underestimated the resolve of these farmers. Whether from the South, or the Far East, North America or Europe, the farmers knew, just like South Korean farmer Lee Kyung-hae knew, that the WTO was killing them. By intentionally driving grain prices down to gain trade advantage in the world market while at the same time forcing the world to accept its genetically modified grain, the U.S. government was using the WTO to control the world market.

Subsidies paid to U.S. farmers were the big issue, but they are only a carrot held out to U.S. farmers to allow them to hang on. Their prices are so low, they are, in effect, giving their grain to Cargill and Bunge, who then use it to force the farmers south of the border out of business. The campesinos understand this, probably better than the U.S. farmers, who are as much a victim of the system as they are. Well, some claim, the campesinos can get manufacturing jobs in the maquiladoras. But no, most of those jobs are moving to China since labor is even cheaper there. This is how the WTO works: create a world with no economic borders, with everything gravitating to wherever it can be grown, made or extracted the cheapest.

And so we marched. There were no differences in nationality between us as we marched down the streets of Cancun toward the WTO meeting place. We were not French, Mexican, Spanish, Brazilian, Argentinean, Korean, African, North American or Belgian. We were the campesinos, the farmers of the world; our messages were simple and clear. Our world was not for sale; we wanted fair trade, not free trade. We had globalized the struggle, globalized the hope.

We would march all the way to the convention center and confront the delegates to the WTO. But it began to fall apart, provocateurs began to throw rocks at the police, the barricades were overturned and Korean farmer Lee Kyung-hae killed himself while wearing a sign saying "WTO Kills Farmers." Although many of us witnessed his fall and saw him carried out, we did not learn of his death, nor his final words, "Don't worry about me, just struggle your hardest," until that night.

As the peaceful march fell apart and tear gas drifted through the air, the campesinos pulled back from the fighting and listened to statements made by farmers from all over the world telling of the devastation caused by unjust trade policies. Speeches were translated through several languages before everyone understood the literal meaning, but we all understood, we were all the same, all farmers.

The WTO is an ugly creature, the lapdog of corporate greed, but the campesinos saw through it, saw what it was doing to farmers around the world. Workers and environmentalists saw through it as well. They all came together in Seattle in 1999 and stopped it; every time the WTO gathered, protesters confronted it and slowed it down. In Cancun we stopped it again. Until governments begin to value people more than corporate profit, the protests will continue, the struggle will survive.

James Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc who participated in the campesino march in Cancun, Mexico, on Sept. 10. E-mail: r.j.goodman@mwt.net

This was published first in The Capital Times ( Madison, WI) and then at http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1029-12.htm