ENVIRONMENT-TRADE: Anti-WTO Protests Begin in Seattle

Danielle Knight

SEATTLE, Dec 4 1999 (IPS) - Opponents of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) were off and running Monday blaming the organisation for eroding environmental, labour, food and product safety standards along with human rights.

Protests against the WTO’s third ministerial conference began even as delegates from the trade body’s 135 members arrived for the talks, scheduled to begin here Tuesday. Activists began a series of rallies, teach-ins, marches and concerts to denounce trade liberalisation which they maintained concentrated power in corporations.

Groups from as far away as India and Ethiopia participated in a sold-out forum over the weekend that questioned the type of corporate-led economic globalisation promoted by the Geneva-based WTO.

“We need to start over because the WTO is pushing us on a race to the bottom that is not acceptable,” said Patti Goldman, an attorney with the Seattle-based Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund.

Goldman told an audience of thousands ofactivists from non- governmental organisations (NGOs) that many US domestic environmental and health laws, including the Endangered Species Act, had been weakened as a result of rulings handed down by the trade body after the regulations were challenged as barriers to free-trade.

“Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new dialogue on the course for change,” she told NGO delegates at the two-day event organised by the International Forum on Globalisation (IFG).

The type of economic globalisation pushed by the WTO is “intrinsically harmful” to the environment because it is based on increasing consumption and exploitation of natural resources, said IFG president Jerry Mander.

Export-oriented production as promoted by the trade body is especially damaging as it directly increased global transport activity, fossil fuel use, while pushing ecologically-damaging new infrastructures like large dams, he said.

Globalization of trade also weakened domestic environmental policies and contributed to the “problems of global climate change, ozone depletion, loss of habitat, and unprecedented levels of pollution,” Mander added.

Environmentalists focused criticism on a proposal called Accelerated Tariff Liberalization, put forward by the United States, which would eliminate tariffs on wood an paper products by 2004.

While a recent report released by President Bill Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality said the overall impact on forests would be slight, environmentalists argued that increased trade and consumption would fuel destructive logging practices in endangered forests like Indonesia.

“The WTO is creating a new global constitution that will devastate the world’s forests and undermine local communities who are the key to long-term forest sustainability,” said Faith Oro, coordinator of the Canadian-based International Network of Forests and Communities.

Last week, 38 Japanese members of parliament, 25 Japanese NGOs, and Japan’s largest forestry union sent a letter to WTO chief Michael Moore, US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, and the American Forest Paper Association, voicing their resistance to the proposal.

“Without proper measures to prevent negative environmental and social impacts, the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers will threaten biodiversity, forests, and the communities that depend on forests,” they wrote.

Increased trade in forest products would be especially devastating to indigenous communities, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, with the Manila-based Indigenous Peoples’ Network for Policy Research and Education.

From Mexico to Malaysia, commercial logging displaced indigenous people and destroyed land on which communities depended for their livelihoods .

“The WTO’s power to define our world should be challenged,” Tauli-Corpuz told the NGOs.

Global fresh water resources could also be under threat by the trade body, added Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy organisation.

Looking at the legal precedents set by the WTO dispute panel, which ruled against environmental laws aiming to protect sea turtles from shrimp nets and dolphins from drift nets, Barlow said quotas or bans on the export of water designed to protect ecosystems could be challenged as a form of protectionism.

She said that there was a difference between creating government policies to share water with drought-ridden countries in need of fresh water with forcing a country to export water for sale.

Corporations could use the WTO, like they currently used the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to force governments to give access to water resources, said Barlow.

The Californian company Sun Belt, for example, is suing the government of Canada under NAFTA because the Canadian province, British Columbia (BC) banned water exports several years ago.

Sun Belt claimed that BC law violated NAFTA’s investor rights clauses and sought 220 million dollars in compensation for lost profits.

“With the protection of these international trade agreements, companies are setting their sights on the mass transport of bulk water by diversion and super tanker,” said Barlow – one of the central organizers of the international campaign that successfully halted the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, the so-called “corporate bill of rights.”

“If the global trade in water becomes a serious proposition in the future, and there is every indication it will, it will find a friend in the WTO,” she warned.

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