Free Trade War?

November 26, 1999

By Michael Jessen

For some, it's just a gathering to contribute to the harmonious development and expansion of world trade - a chance for the United States to exercise leadership in setting the trade agenda for the next century.

For others, it will be a festival of resistance, the protest of the century, and a titanic struggle against corporate power - sort of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention of the 1990s.

For a young West Kootenay woman, it's the war of her generation - at least, the beginning of the war.

The event is the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) being held November 30 to December 3 in Seattle, Washington. Trade Ministers from 135 member countries as well as representatives from hundreds of corporations make up the official 5,000 delegates; they are the some.

The others are the up to 50,000 demonstrators from around the world who plan to mobilize against globalization at mass rallies, a giant march, teach-ins, and prayer services. They hope to rappel down a skyscraper or two and even form a human chain around the Washington State Trade and Convention Center to disrupt the trade summit.

Mia Gardiner, a 24-year-old South Slocan resident who works with Earth Matters in Nelson, will be in Seattle this weekend, but she doesn't believe the protest will make much difference.

Even though some WTO trade rulings have already weakened the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the clean-air rules of both United States and Canada, Gardiner believes many people remain unaware of what they may lose in upcoming negotiations.

"Many people have gotten spoiled and passive," says Gardiner, adding that the time will come when her generation will have to take action.

"This generation hasn't had to suffer through a war . . . the WTO is our war," she says. "It's the beginning of the war of our generation."

Gardiner is one of three young people accompanying Selkirk College political science professor Andy Shadrack south of the border to witness part of the conference first-hand.

Melissa Fryer, a 19-year-old Trail resident and student in Shadrack's second year International Relations political science course, doesn't know what to expect in Seattle.

"I hope to learn why people are opposed to or for the WTO," she says in an interview. "I just want to absorb everything and see how it works. I've never been to anything like this before."

While Fryer believes the WTO has its place, she fears eliminating trade barriers could harm the environment and human health by giving too much power to large corporations promoting such things as genetically modified food.

"There's a danger we could be sacrificing our health for their profits," she says.

The WTO was formed in 1995 and is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which itself was created in 1947 to reduce taxes on imports (tariffs) and limits on the amount of imports (quotas). Just about anything which could affect free trade falls under the mandate of the WTO. Ministerial meetings, like the so-called Millennium Round in Seattle, are held behind closed doors as are the three-person panels that arbitrate WTO disputes.

"What really frustrates me is the lack of democracy," says Gardiner. "The top ten percent of money earners are making decisions at the expense of half the countries in the world."

Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins worry that trade organizations like the WTO are supranational, secretive, and unaccountable. This threatens the basic principles of open markets that they are supposed to support say the authors of the best-selling book, "Natural Capitalism".

"Elevating the objectives of trade above the transparency and accountability that democracy requires will ultimately destroy at least one of these institutions, if not both," they conclude.

Bill Gates, the billionaire owner of Microsoft, is one of the corporate executives who have contributed $9.2 million to host the Seattle meeting. According to the World Development Movement, an organization that is seeking a reform of the WTO to ensure it benefits the poorest people not the richest companies, Gates has as much money as 450 million of the world's poorest people.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians says there has been an almost 50 percent increase in child poverty while the number of millionaires in Canada has tripled since Canada signed the free trade agreement with the United States.

"Money can't become our God," says Gardiner. "It can't replace religious beliefs, our sense of self, or an appreciation of nature.

"We should try to develop wholeness," she adds. "We need to look after our community and start taking care of each other a little more."

Gardiner, who has taught workshops about globalization, sees the WTO as a "giant capitalist union" which could take the place of government.

"Capitalism has come to the point where corporations are more powerful than government," she says. "The money people are really calling the shots."

World trade was valued at $5.6 trillion in 1997, 14 times higher than the volume in 1950. It forms a 15 percent share of the gross world product.

"International free trade inescapably leads to a levelling down," says economist Richard Douthwaite. "It means that salaries and wages will tend to converge at Third World levels, and social security provisions in industrial countries will continue to be cut, since these are an overhead that economies cannot bear if they are to compete successfully with countries without them."

Douthwaite, whose revised and updated book "The Growth Illusion" has just been republished, says growth produces jobs in exactly the way a chain letter produces money - only for the few at the top and at the expense of those below.

"But the rich countries have exhausted the resources of the countries below them, which no longer have any jobs or money to send up the chain, particularly if the international banks refuse to lend to them any more," Douthwaite explains. "Consequently, the only way that the industrialized countries can keep the present game going is to play against each other, concentrating jobs and generating poverty within the borders of their own lands."

Fryer, who began writing and reporting at J.Lloyd Crowe Secondary School, will e-mail back her WTO observations gathered at teach-ins and interviews to the Kootenays. They will be posted on the Nelson Observer, an on-line newspaper found on the Internet at www.kics.bc.ca/~observer.

She believes the Seattle protests will force legislators to listen to what the people are saying.

"I don't think the protests will completely stop the WTO, but they will definitely slow it down," Fryer concluded. "I think it can definitely have an impact by slowly chipping away at the foundation and getting the house to crumble."

ONE SMALL STEP -- Mia Gardiner believes everyone should educate herself or himself about the WTO to truly understand its power. "Consumers should use their dollars to reject the products of the large corporations," says the advocate of buying local. Melissa Fryer wants everyone to realize that the unending harvest of resources in Canada is not sustainable. Tell your elected representatives that you care about knowing how the products you buy are produced, and that you care about human and labor rights, and environmental protection. You may also consider joining a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to support others who have banded together to try to influence decisions of governments and businesses. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the number of NGOs operating internationally has quadrupled to 20,000 in the last 30 years.

The World Trade Organization web site can be found at www.wto.org. The official ministerial conference site is at http://wtoseattle.org/. Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade web site at www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/ presents the government's view on the WTO and even has on-line copies of trade agreements like NAFTA. Information Technologies for Development, found at www.itd.org/, is a joint venture of the WTO and the World Bank. Corporate Watch at www.corpwatch.org/, Global Exchange at www.globalexchange.org/, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch at www.tradewatch.org/, the International Forum on Globalization at www.ifg.org/, and Mobilization Against Corporate Globalization at www.seattle99.org/ offer a wealth of information about opposition to the WTO. The group Globalize This! has a Countdown to Downtown timer on its web site at www.globalizethis.org/. Two other sites (www.gatt.org/ and www.seattlewto.org/) have been created to look like the real WTO and host organization sites; they offer information for those opposed to globalization. The November-December issue of Worldwatch magazine contains two excellent articles about the growing power of NGOs and their efforts to reform the WTO. The articles are available for free pdf file downloads from the Worldwatch Institute web site at www.worldwatch.org/. "Natural Capitalism" by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins was published in September 1999 by Little, Brown and Company. "The Growth Illusion" by Richard Douthwaite is published by New Society Publishers and can be ordered by telephone at 1-800-567-6772 or through their web site at www.newsociety.com.


All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.