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WTO destroys small farmers

Last week in Cancun, Mexico, Lee Kyung Hae, a 56-year-old Korean peasant farmer, climbed to the top of a police barricade blocking access to the World Trade Organization Ministerial meetings, displayed a sign that said "WTO Kills Farmers," and plunged a knife into his chest. He died hours later.

Mr. Hae, who traveled to Mexico with a Korean delegation to show solidarity to thousands of Mexican peasant farmers who were protesting the WTO and globalization, sacrificed his life to bring attention to what is becoming an indisputable reality: Corporate globalization threatens the livelihood of millions of farmers worldwide.

Consider the facts: Since 1995 (when both NAFTA and WTO regulations went into effect), 1.5 million Mexican campesinos have been economically displaced. In India, the world's third largest agricultural producer, more than 20,000 farmers commit suicide annually, often by drinking pesticides. Here in the United States, where 500 farmers file for bankruptcy per week, the farmers have dwindled from nearly 40 percent of the population before World War II to less than 1.5 percent today. The bad news goes on and on.

Why these trends? Because the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- all global "one size fits all" organizations -- systematically force policies on countries that undermine small, sustainable, subsistence agriculture in favor of export oriented agribusiness.

Case in point: U.S. and European Union farm subsides have been grandfathered into the WTO and NAFTA trade regulations, while import tariffs in other countries have been abolished. This allows U.S. exporters to dump crops into developing countries at prices 25 percent below production costs and forces small farmers in those countries out of business. But it's not small farmers from the United States competing against small farmers in the Third World. Eighty percent of U.S. farm subsidies go to only 9 percent of farmers -- big, multinational agribusiness companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Small U.S. farmers suffer the same fate as their campesino brothers.

It doesn't end there. The WTO Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement allows the patenting of life forms. Large corporations can patent seeds, bred by indigenous cultures over thousands of years, and force farmers to either buy the seeds or, if they follow tradition and save seeds from year to year, pay royalties on them. Monsanto recently received a patent (Patent No. EP 0445929 B1) on a traditional Indian wheat variety. Before that, RiceTec tried to patent basmati rice (Patent No. 5663484).

Maize (corn) was bred over thousands of years in Mexico, from the native variety the size of a pinky to the many varieties in use today. Ironically, genetically engineered and patented corn varieties have been imported into Mexico at artificially low prices and have found their way into farmers' fields. Traditional varieties have since been found to be genetically contaminated with the engineered versions. Under patent law, a company can sue for patent infringement farmers whose crops are accidentally contaminated, as Monsanto has already done in cases in Canada and the United States. How will farmers in developing countries defend themselves against such cases? It's no wonder that Indian farmers would rather drink pesticides than continue to fight a losing battle against big agribusiness.

What's the alternative? How about a "Fair Trade Organization" that embodies the following principles:

Democracy -- make all trade agreements open and transparent.

Local control -- decisions that affect local communities should be made locally.

Sustainability -- trade rules should favor the most sustainable approaches to agriculture and industry.

Diversity -- biodiversity and cultural diversity should be protected.

Human rights -- human rights, especially of indigenous peoples, should trump corporate interests.

Livelihood and employment -- the economic security of all people should be considered in all trade agreements.

Food security and safety -- access to abundant and safe food is a basic human right.

Equity trade agreements should consider the current economic gap between rich and poor nations and peoples.

Precautionary principle -- the burden of proof of the safety of new technologies like genetic engineering should fall on the corporations promoting them. Civil society should not be expected to prove them unsafe, as is currently the case.

The WTO experiment of the last decade has been a disaster. It is time to embrace an alternative approach that protects the common good over the interests of huge corporations. Lee Kyung Hae gave his life to save the lives and livelihoods of billions of Third World people. Now, all people of conscience must speak up for a new paradigm of globalization.

Dave Georgis is director of the Broomfield-based Colorado Genetic Engineering Action Network.

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