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WTO trade summit focusing on agriculture this time
Knight Ridder - Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Knight Ridder Newspapers

By Jane Bussey

CANCUN, Mexico _ As 146 trade ministers begin five days of global trade talks, the most modern trade summit ever _ from the ever-present cellphones to the sophisticated electronic access cards _ is dominated by the age-old issue of agriculture.

Ibrahim Coulibaly represents poor cotton farmers from Mali, who warn their future is threatened by the flood of cheap cotton into world markets. Similar demands for urgent action to correct distortions in world trade have quickly become the make-or-break issue at the world trade summit that opens Wednesday on the Mexican Yucatan peninsula.

"Cotton is essential to the lives of people in West Africa," said Coulibaly of the West African Organization of Agricultural Producers during a news conference Tuesday. "We expect to have a strict calendar for the end of all subsidies," adding that for trade negotiators to return from Cancun empty-handed will create political problems at home.

Coulibaly's voice was just one of thousands at the fifth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization as industry, environmental, labor and citizen groups jostle for attention from the trade ministers. The ministers meet behind closed doors during what have become raucous and rancorous events.

There are several proposals on the table but no consensus.

Already observers are predicting little agreement at the meeting, which includes a large array of talks including investment agreements and intellectual property disputes. The talks are supposed to yield a framework for future negotiations, a timetable and specific deadlines to complete the process by 2005.

There is already talk of a second meeting within six months in Geneva, but no official confirmation.

"There's a signal that the level of crisis is new," said Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, predicting that the outcome of the talks would be a "polite and shallow declaration."

But such a result would not be a sign of failure, Ritchie argued, but a sign that developing countries are bargaining for real for the first time.

The Mexican resort of Cancun has been turned upside down by the tight security: Every hotel worker has to obtain access cards to go to work in the hotel zone. Thousands of police and soldiers patrol the island to confine protesters to downtown Cancun and away from tourists and those attending the meeting. On Monday, dozens of protesters managed to reach the beach and took off their clothes in protest. On Tuesday, police and protesters struggled at a police blockade.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, who also has his eye on November hemispheric trade talks that will be held in Miami, echoed the emphasis on agriculture.

"Much of the attention here is going to be on agriculture and I think that is appropriate," Zoellick said in a news conference. But the trade representative added that for Washington, the bottom line in the negotiations is market access _ lower import tariffs and similar easing measures _ for industrial products and services.

Developing countries are demanding that the billion-dollar price supports and export credits used in Europe, the United States and Japan not be used to dump below-cost farm goods.

Mexican peasants are protesting the results of the North American Free Trade Agreement, charging that subsidized American corn is exported below the cost of production, driving down domestic corn prices by 70 percent and forcing farmers off their land.

But this is much more complex than just a rich-poor country divide. Wealthier developing countries like Brazil want more market access for their products in Europe and the United States, something that is not an issue for a country like Mali.

Meanwhile, Ritchie pointed out that while Mexican farmers focus their ire on the United States and corn prices, Vietnam is dumping coffee into the world market, wreaking havoc for coffee producers in Mexico and Central and South America.

___

(c) 2003, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Inlumen


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