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 mammals,

* 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 countries,

* 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.

World Trade Organization