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Annan decries trade policies

(Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, 09/10/03: CANCUN, Mexico -- A global trade summit opened today with stern words from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and a march by thousands of activists -- including one who apparently committed suicide -- who said the trade policies of the United States and other wealthy countries were keeping much of the world mired in poverty.

"We are told that free trade brings opportunity for all people, not just a fortunate few," Annan said in a statement read on his behalf at the opening of a five-day meeting of the 146 member nations of the World Trade Organization.

"Sadly, the reality of the international trading system today doesn't match the rhetoric," Annan said. "Instead of open markets there are too many barriers that stunt, stifle and starve. Instead of fair competition, there are subsidies by rich countries that tilt the playing field against the poor."

President Vicente Fox of Mexico formally opened the meeting in this Caribbean resort city and said that trade policies of rich nations, including subsidies that favor large agricultural interests, have failed to reduce poverty and help the world's poorest people.

"We can no longer allow well-being to be limited to a few nations," Fox said. "We can no longer risk continuing in a world marred by exclusion and injustice; we can no longer postpone the battle against poverty and marginalization."

Trade ministers from WTO member nations are attempting to balance the political, social, economic and cultural needs of all member nations as part of a process to reform global trading regulations.

The effort, begun in 2001 in Doha, Qatar, deals with a range of issues. But the one that most threatens to deadlock the delegates this week is the nearly $1 billion a day that rich governments, particularly those of the European Union, the United States and Japan, provide in subsidies to their farmers.

A broad coalition of nations, including poor agrarian countries such as Benin and food-exporting powerhouses such as Australia, is demanding that rich nations reduce or eliminate subsidies. The group argues that those payments are simply political gifts to powerful agricultural interests and that they result in excess production that is dumped at artificially low prices on world markets -- costing millions of farmers in poor countries their jobs.

European and U.S. officials say they are willing to substantially reduce subsidies, but no specific agreement has been reached. President Bush and leaders of other WTO countries have said that reducing barriers to global trade is critical to eradicating poverty and increasing jobs and income around the world.

"There are groups of countries here in Cancun with varying agendas," Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said Tuesday. "There are the protesters advocating one cause or another. But let's not lose sight of what we hope to achieve here. Our purpose is to achieve more trade, fairer trade, more opportunities for income growth, and better lives for billions of people around the world."

The differences among key players here heated up further today when a group of 20 developing nations, including India, China and Brazil, circulated a document to the delegates complaining that the proposed agreement currently under consideration here "fails to deliver" substantial cuts in subsidies.

Delegates from several countries predicted difficult negotiations ahead.

"Our objective is to push those who are resistant to agricultural reform to the wall," said Mark Vaile, the Australian trade minister. "We are here to push others to the limit, to the edge, to pursue our objectives. We believe it is in the name of right and good as far as our own farm communities are concerned."

"We agree with Kofi Annan; we are very much in favor of total elimination of subsidies," said Someth Suos, a delegate from Cambodia, which is set to join the WTO this week.

Anger at the WTO and the policies of rich nations boiled over today with demonstrations inside the heavily guarded convention center where the meetings are being held, and a few miles away where police have set up blockades to keep protesters at bay.

Just before Fox spoke, a group of about 25 protesters disrupted the opening ceremony by standing and holding signs that called the WTO "obsolete" and "anti-democratic." They then chanted "Shame, shame!" until security guards escorted them from the auditorium.

"We wanted to show that people around the world support standing up to the big agricultural companies and their client governments," said Lori Wallach, a trade lawyer and director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch in Washington.

About six miles from the convention center, and far from the strip of luxury hotels facing pristine white beaches, several thousand protesters marched in the blistering heat to a fence line guarded by police in riot gear. While most of the protesters were peaceful, some knocked over a section of fence and others burned an American flag in a small bonfire and threw rocks at police. Witnesses said police responded with batons and tear gas, and two or three injuries were reported. A 56-year-old South Korean farm activist died after apparently stabbing himself in the stomach, according to news reports.

"They need to change their policies to close the gap between rich and poor," said Nelesio Bernavino, 66, a rural farmer, or campesino, who traveled from the central Mexican state of Morelos to demonstrate against the WTO. "We Mexican campesinos are really suffering."

Researcher Bart Beeson contributed to this report.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57444-2003Sep10.html