Africa: Free Trade is Not Fair Trade, Say Protesters

Johannesburg — VIOLENT street protests have become a common feature at World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meetings. The Hong Kong gathering last week was never going to be different.

Protesters came in large numbers from different parts of the world. The most prominent were farmers and factory workers from South Korea. Clad in orange and banging drums, they made their presence felt and, as expected, had sporadic clashes with the police.

During the day they camped in tents in Victoria Park across the road from the Hong Kong Central Library.

But come nightfall, they would march towards the conference venue. "Down, down WTO," they chanted in unison.

As at previous conferences, there were bloody skirmishes with riot police in which some protesters were injured.

On Saturday police used pepper spray, tear gas and water hoses to disperse a crowd of protesters who wanted to disrupt the negotiations.

Although from diverse backgrounds, the protesters were bound together by their opposition to what they considered to be unfair trade policies and the pace of market liberalisation in their countries.

Behind the "sloganeering" and the rhetoric, lay concern about the fate of their economies.

Nhampossa Diamantino, of Mozambique's National Peasant Union, raised sponsorship for his travelling costs to Hong Kong, determined to make his opposition to the talks heard.

He says his government's liberalisation policies are hurting Mozambique's agriculture.

"We want our agricultural sector to be protected in the face of strong competition from cheap imports which are dumped in the country.

"Government should spend more on supporting local industry through increased spending on roads and irrigation systems."

Diamantino repeated what became a rallying cry among the protesters -- agriculture should be removed from the WTO talks.

"The trade negotiators should not be discussing agriculture. Agricultural issues should be discussed at the country and regional levels, not at the multilateral level," Diamantino said.

As agriculture is one of the deal-breakers at the WTO at the moment, that demand will suit the European Union (EU) and US, which have been criticised for overprotecting their farmers.

Diamantino, however, is not opposed to subsidies themselves, he just does not trust the WTO to negotiate on the issue.

"In the US, these subsidies are a political issue. I would also like to see my government giving farmers subsidies. During apartheid, the South African government supported white farmers," he says.

Diamantino is not deterred by the reality that his government is unlikely to go that route. Doing so would weaken the argument for the EU, Japan and the US to open their markets to agricultural products from developing states. "The local agricultural sector must be protected. Agricultural imports should enter the country at a price higher than the retail price in Mozambique," he says.

"If the US and the EU remove all their subsidies tomorrow, does that mean we will be able to compete with their farmers? No. Because they are already strong. Their governments supported them."

He says farmers in Mozambique are paying for their government's decision to rapidly open up its agricultural markets.

"They were under pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)."

For instance, in 1995 Mozambique's government had to accept a demand from the World Bank to liberalise the trade in cashew nuts as a condition for a loan.

Seeking protection against foreign competition seems to be a common feature among the protesters. The South Koreans -- the most visible and vocal of them -- are vehemently against their government's plans to relax agricultural tariffs, which they say will lead to an influx of imported rice, hurting local producers.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which sent a delegation to Hong Kong, focused on the nonagricultural market access negotiations, the other hot potato at the talks.

The union federation is concerned about the negative effect on local industries of the increased market access of industrial goods.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says WTO concessions on more access for industrial goods from developed countries to developing countries will be disastrous: "It will entrench developing countries in neocolonial economic relationships where they export minerals, agricultural products and other raw materials to the colonial headquarters while importing products they are unable to make."

Vavi says the industries most vulnerable to the tariff cuts are manufacturing, fisheries and minerals. He says the implications of increased market access for SA are far reaching and could sabotage government's Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative and its 6% economic growth target.

"Deindustrialisation will defeat all goals of the Growth and Development Summit, including that of cutting unemployment by half by 2014. Instead, unemployment will worsen in SA," Vavi says.

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