The Cancun summit will fail if rich countries are not prepared for reform, argues Patrick Nicholson
4f you stop sowing
maize, you feel bad, as if you weren't a eal person any more, as if you were dead, even though you are still alive." Juan Luis Hercolano is a 30-year-old farmer from Veracruz state in Mexico. He said his farming community is being devastated by cheap imports of maize from the United States.
"You can't make a living selling maize, the prices are too low," said Hercolano. "The young guys go North because you can get cash there, washing plates in restaurants and washing cars. Of us men in the village, 25 out of 80 have already gone."
Mexico is the birthplace of maize and the country's history and culture revolve around the crop. Since the signing of a free trade agreement in 1994 with the United States, maize imports have nearly tripled, and the price has dropped 64 per cent since 1985. The Mexican countryside has lost I .7 million jobs. Thousands of Mexicans migrated to the United States, many to work in agriculture as undocumented workers. Rural Mexico is like a disaster zone.
Hercolano says the free trade agreement allows heavily subsidised American maize to flood the Mexican market, undercutting local farmers.
"This is why our fanners are now in Cancun, to protest at the meeting of governments in the World Trade Organisation," he said, "So that they won't go on playing with our livelihoods in their treaties, so that they don't go on playing with our lives."
The Mexican resort of Cancun is playing host this week, from September 10-14, to a meeting of the WTO. Negotiators are trying to resuscitate a deal aimed at expanding the liberalisation of world tnarkets.
But the WTO is in crisis. Critics in developing countries, such as Mexico, say that previous treaties under the WTO have favoured the rich and ripped off the poor. They argue that unfair trade rules rob the Third World of $700 million a year. They want any new deal to reflect the concerns of poorer countries.
Talks since the last WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar, two years ago have stagnated. At the heart of the impasse is a quarrel between developed and developing countries over agriculture.
The States and the EU protect their agriculture sectors through high tariffs and by supporting their farmers with $350 billion a year, while at the same time urging Third World countries to open up their markets.
The huge levels of farm support in the US and EU result in cheap food being dumped on third world markets, destroying the livelihoods of local farmers. The
world's poorer countries lose a total of E.15.3bn a year because of the subsidies paid to farmers by rich nations.
Developing countries and aid agencies such as Cafod are calling on the EU and the States to use the WTO in Cancun to agree to radical cuts in import tariffs and export subsidies.
In 1999, the WTO meeting in Seattle_ collapsed amid a walk-out by developing countries inside the conference centre and anti-globalisation riots outside. There is a real chance Cancun will end in similar failure over rich countries' refusal to reform their economically reckless and morally bankrupt approach to agriculture.
Such a blow could see the proliferation of bilateral trade deals, replacing the multilateral WTO system. This would be bad for developing countries, leaving poor nations with much less bargaining power in their deals with the United States and EU.
Cafod says that if the trading system is to work for the poor, WTO members must seize the moment in Cancun to promote fairer trade rules in agriculture.
Cancun is make or break for the WTO, and the EU and America must make it work by grasping the nettle of agricultural reform.
Patrick Nicholson is a media a/Weer/Or, Cafod