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Editorial: WTO loses; farmers win

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Any time the World Trade Organization is prevented from furthering the agenda of the global corporations that seek to dominate the economic, social and political life of the planet, it is cause for celebration.

So pop the champagne corks, because the news from Cancun is very good, indeed.

Developing countries walked out of the WTO meeting in that Mexican resort city after the United States, the European Union and Japan rejected demands for trade policies that address the needs of the world's poor, rather than the bottom lines of the multinational corporations that are the prime beneficiaries of WTO rule making. The walkout by representatives of India, Brazil and small countries that are concerned about the threat the WTO's corporate free trade agenda poses to development and democracy caused the collapse of what had been a critical gathering for the international organization that came into being nine years ago with a charge to define global rules for trade.

Organizations representing workers, farmers, environmentalists and human rights campaigners the world over had organized to prevent the WTO from launching a new push to restructure trade rules to favor corporations. There was particular concern that an agreement reached in Cancun could lead to a major assault on the limited protections that remain for small farmers around the world. Such an initiative would have provided tremendous benefits for agribusiness corporations, but it would have been devastating for farmers from Iowa County to India.

"No agreement is better than a bad agreement," explained David Waskow, trade policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth. "Despite intense pressure by the business lobby and by the U.S. and EU, developing countries stood their ground. This is a tremendous development for people and the protection of the environment."

For Wisconsin's working farmers, the victory is especially sweet. Corporate free trade schemes that benefit California agribusiness and factory farm interests are, by their nature, a threat to family farming. That's why farmers from Wisconsin traveled to Mexico to join family farmers from around the world in protests against the WTO's corporations-first, people-last agenda.

The protesters delivered a message that was heard by representatives of developing countries, if not by U.S. representatives. That message was summed up by Mark Ritchie, the president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who has long maintained close ties to family farm activists in Wisconsin. "We can't continue a global trading system that primarily benefits the interests of multinational corporations and doesn't address the serious concerns of farmers, workers and people around the world."

As the Wisconsinites and others who traveled from the United States to Cancun return home, they face a new challenge. The Bush administration continues to position the United States as the primary advocate for multinational corporations. It is unlikely that the president, who collects most of his campaign money from individuals and groups associated with those corporations, will change course.

But it is possible to change the politics of the United States. Trade needs to become a central issue in the 2004 campaign. In 2000, Republican Bush and Democrat Al Gore sounded troublingly similar on issues of trade, and Gore's failure to distinguish himself cost him votes. Many of the Democrats who want to oppose Bush appear to have learned from Gore's mistake. Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a one-time defender of the corporate free trade agenda, now says he favors trade policies that protect workers, farmers and the environment.

It is essential that the Bush administration's free trade agenda be challenged - not just in Cancun but in the 2004 election.

Published: 10:09 AM 9/16/03

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