The WorId Trade Take-Over
by Henry Holmes
Earth Island Institute Journal, Winter 2000
On November 30, trade ministers from 135 nations will arrive
in Seattle for the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Third Ministerial
conference. The WTO's master-plan for the 21st century includes
a sweeping new agenda to increase the global consumption of wood
products. The WTO is one of the biggest and most urgent threats
to the environment. Since 1995, this global trade regime has amassed
a lamentable record. In less than five years, the WTO's three-man
panel of trade bureaucrats (which meets in secret in Geneva) has:
* Made it illegal to protect endangered sea turtles and marine
* Weakened the US Clear Air Act to allow dirtier fuel to be
sold in US markets, `
* Championed the international trade of hazardous waste being
dumped in people-of-color communities and developing Southern
* Forced shoppers to consume genetically modified food products
- released into the marketplace unannounced and unlabeled.
In the quest for open markets and increased profits, environmental
and human needs are increasingly ruled to be impermissible "barriers"
to the global free trade of goods and services. Any sovereign
nations that dares to stand up to the WTO risks swift and sure
retaliation in the form of WTO-sanctioned trade restrictions,
monetary sanctions and legislative changes designed to weaken
or eliminate public interest and environmental laws.
As one of the main bodies crafting and enforcing rules in
favor of global market expansion and exploitation by transnational
corporations, the WTO steadfastly keeps the trade liberalization
agenda "pure." This means that although trade and investment
have direct social, economic and environmental impacts, the WTO
does not have to address or account for these impacts. Moreover,
the WTO s growing power undermines other institutions and threatens
to overwhelm all efforts to promote environmental protection,
ecological sustainability and social justice.
An indication of what lies ahead is found in the disturbing
precedents already set by the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA). In 1997, the US-owned Ethyl Corporation used NAFTA to
successfully challenge Canada's ban on the toxic fuel additive
MMT. In 1999, Canada's Methanex Corp. filed a NAFTA suit against
the State of California when Governor Gray Davis announced plans
to ban MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive that was recently shown
to be polluting the states ground water.
The WTO is seeking to expand its ability to override laws
designed to protect the environment, endangered species, natural
resources, public health, food safety, consumers, labor, and small
farmers. Some WTO members favor bringing the failed negotiations
on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) to the WTO.
Under the MAI, foreign corporations and private investors would
be able to sue any federal, state or local governments whose regulatory
laws were deemed a threat to their ability turn a profit.
Procurement policies are also targeted for attention at the
WTO's Seattle meeting. City and state procurement policies are
used to promote local enterprises by directing contracts to small
businesses owned by women and people of color.
Procurement laws also are used to favor purchases of recycled
materials, sustainably harvested wood, zero-emission vehicles
and organic foods. The WTO would prohibit such policies as unfair
barriers to trade.
While the WTO gathers to engineer its macroeconomic design
for the next 100 years, activists from around the globe will converge
for a series of teach-ins, workshops, street actions, organizing
campaigns and media blitzes.
The stakes for this meeting are high. More than 1000 organizations
from 77 countries from every corner of the globe have already
signed a joint statement opposing the WTO s Millennium Meeting.
One strong message is clear: The WTO should not expand its
powers. Instead, the WTO should thoroughly review - and rectify
- the detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts of
its activities to date. This review must proceed with the participation
of a full range of civil society perspectives.
The American public has signaled its burgeoning resistance
to the globalization juggernaut by refusing to give the US President
fast-track authority to negotiate NAFTA and other global trade
and investment deals. (Under the fast-track proposal, Congress
could only approve or reject trade and investment agreements:
It would not have the power to alter or amend them.)
Today, surprising alliances from across the civil society
spectrum - including unprecedented unions between labor and environment
groups - are adding new voices to a chorus that insists on telling
the stories mainstream corporate media ignores. These stories
tell tales of sweatshop-labor exploitation; of environmental and
labor abuses in the maquiladoras lining the US-Mexican border;
of small organic farmers struggling to compete with taxpayer subsidized
transnational farming corporations; of communities fighting the
abuses of big oil companies in communities ranging from Richmond,
California to Ogoniland in Nigeria; and of efforts to stem the
slaughter of endangered sea turtles and to preserve genuine dolphin-safe
tuna labeling standards.
These stories prove that global trade is not the "pure"
subject of technical rules for a global economy that globalization
apologists make it out to be.
The economy is not an end in itself, hut ) a means to achieve
a good quality of life for (r all - and to do so within the limits
of nature. Globalization is not inevitable. An informed global
civil society can make informed choices for a more socially just
and ecologically sustainable future.
Come to Seattle and help us bring the "fair trade"
message to communities at home and around the world. Putting profits
before people and the environment is ultimately a dead end and
cannot be sustained.
For more information contact SAGE, 300 Broadway, No. 28, San
Francisco, CA 94l.33,
Henry Holmes is director of Sustainable Alternatives to the
Global Economy (SAGE), an Earth Island project.