Poor rail at free trade

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The Independent Online
OVER 300 people from non-governmental organisations around the world marched on the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva on Wednesday, to protest about the damage they believe its policies are causing.

They are incensed at what they allege is the way lower tariff barriers and free trade, so called "globalisation", are threatening the livelihoods of people in developing countries.

The marchers had come to Geneva to take part in a conference called the People's Global Action against "Free" Trade and the World Trade Organisation. This was convened by groups who were mostly from developing countries, including farmers' associations from India, the Philippines and Latin America.

Free trade is now ruling the world, allege the marchers, and people's democratic rights are being lost. They claim that globalisation is helping transnational corporations to expand at the expense of local people - taking over land, for example, to grow crops for export - and that it is widening the gap between rich and poor countries.

They point out that Renato Ruggiero, director general of the WTO, has spoken of writing "a constitution for a single global economy", and that pacts such as the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment will make democratically elected governments subservient to unelected corporations.

Farmers from India said that globalisation has led to lower tariff barriers on food imports into India, and that the increase in imports was affecting their livelihoods. This has led to farmers in some Indian states burning imported foodstuffs in protest.

Participants from Africa stressed that an alternative to globalisation was the strengthening of regional groupings, such as the 12-country Southern African Development Community, which enable people to feel less alienated.

Strengthening links between small-scale producers and consumers was seen as an alternative that could challenge globalisation. In practice this would lead to an expansion of "alternative" trade.

Around pounds 200m a year is now spent on alternatively traded products, and while this is only a fraction of world trade overall, there are some impressive growth areas. Alternatively traded bananas, for example, became available in Switzerland just over a year ago, and captured 14 per cent of the Swiss market in their first year. In Britain, an alternatively traded coffee, Cafe Direct - launched in 1991 by Traidcraft, Twin Trading, Equal Exchange and Oxfam Trading - has around 3 per cent of the UK coffee market.

Cafe Direct's beans come from growers in producer groups in Peru, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Uganda and Tanzania. The growers are paid 10 per cent above the market rate, and are guaranteed a price that covers their costs of production no matter how low the world price.