Focus: Maria fed her family and country. Then US rice came pouring in

Farmers in Honduras have been driven to destitution by unfair global trade rules. Patricia Hewitt wants them to get a better deal

Five hundred miles and a world away from the air-conditioned rooms of the trade negotiations in Cancun, Maria Marcos Rivera sat on the mud-floor porch of her Honduran home, surrounded by four generations of her family. In this lush and fertile land, deep in the countryside, 62-year-old Maria could seem to be living in paradise. But she is fighting a daily battle for survival on the land for herself, her 84-year-old mother and the tiny children I met at her home in Guayaman - the local base for a co-operative of small rice farmers. "Look at this land," Maria said. "Once it was all rice as far as you can see. That's what I want one day again for my children and their children."

I was invited to meet Maria and her family by Christian Aid on my way to Cancun, and to join them for a simple meal of rice, maize and chicken. Rice and maize are the staple diet of the Honduran poor, and just over 10 years ago, thanks to the toil of Maria and hundreds of small farmers, Honduras produced 100 per cent of its domestic rice needs.

Honduras, dubbed the "grain basket" of Central America, even had surpluses to export to neighbouring countries. Life was never easy, but the farmers could afford to send their children to school. Things changed in 1991, when the Honduran government - under pressure from the IMF - abolished import controls and threw the rice market wide open.

Liberalisation put the Honduran farmers at the mercy of big American rice producers who enjoy subsidies worth, we were told, 65 per cent of the production costs of rice in Honduras. Against such unfair competition Honduran rice production collapsed to just 1 per cent of domestic needs, with the gap filled by American imports. In 1998, the farmers' plight was deepened by the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch.

Young people, unable to work on family farms, moved to the towns; unemployment rose; lawlessness grew. But the farmers have fought back. They joined with the rice processors and won an agreement that processors must buy home-grown rice before they can use imports.

Last year, according to the rice producers' association, Honduran farmers produced 16 per cent of their country's needs. This year that will rise to 33 per cent. But even with a guaranteed market, Maria cannot afford to buy costly seed and fertiliser to start cultivating her fields again.

The Honduran government has just agreed a programme offering cheap loans, seeds and fertilisers to the poorest farmers so that they can get back into profitable production. Its strategy for the agricultural sector is to help small farmers diversify, to work together to bring more land into cultivation and, over time, move into other sectors. But there is a huge part that has to be played by the governments of the world's rich nations.

The challenge for us in the rich nations has been to put some political muscle behind the Doha Development Round in Cancun. Meeting Maria and farmers like her has made me appreciate even more clearly that development in poor countries is inseparable from agriculture in rich countries.

I can see why organisations like Christian Aid and others oppose the style of market liberalisation that devastated Honduran rice farmers in the Eighties. But throwing a blanket of protectionism around a country is not the answer, especially for developing countries that need opportunities to export their industrial products to the developed world and to each other.

"Special and differential treatment" will allow developing countries to open their markets more slowly, particularly for products that are important to vulnerable producers. But, above all, we in the developed world have to cut our trade-distorting agricultural subsidies. The agreement we reached in the European Union in June to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a very big step forward. We need other developed countries to step up to the mark. We must work towards delivering a deal that helps to lift millions of people like Maria out of poverty.

We need to do more than recognise problems and listen to concerns - we need to deliver on substance.

In this crucial final weekend of negotiations at Cancun I will redouble my efforts to get a fairer deal for Maria and the millions like her. For when defenceless poor farmers in the developing world meet rich subsidised farmers there is no competition.

Patricia Hewitt is Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

The key players

Protests outside the WTO talks are not as fierce as the arguments raging inside as 100 developing countries attempt to persuade Europe, America and Japan to deliver on their promises and make trade fairer. With one day left to go, who are the leading players and what do they want?

Pascal Lamy

EU Trade Commissioner. Villain to campaigners but respected by peers. Leaving office next year, so trade agreement would let him go out in glory. Wants to keep EU farming reforms and open talks on new rules on investment in foreign countries.

Robert Zoellick

Negotiating trade issues for an aggressively unilateral president makes him a target for countries upset by US steel tariffs, farm subsidies and refusal to sign up to environmental treaties. Wants subsidies cut and markets opened across the world to make US goods and services available to all.

Supachai Panitchpakdi

First WTO director general from a developing country. Has credentials to calm more volatile delegates. The Thai politician will need his skills to keep talks on track. Wants agreement by January 2005 deadline - and progress at Cancun to show talks are working.

Celso Amorim

Having fought for developing countries to be allowed to break drug patents to fight disease, Brazil has emerged as a key player in Cancun within newly influential G21 alliance. Amorim, the country's foreign minister, wants the impossible: an end to US and EU farm subsidies.

Arun Jaitley

Commerce minister for India, which is a tough negotiator that almost derailed last round of talks, but secured a deal. Even bigger clout as part of G21. Jaitley wants to keep out cheap imports with tariffs while gaining greater access to overseas markets.

Luis Ernesto Derbez

Mexican foreign minister has had to organise obscure procedures and committees to keep talks going while hoping for no more blood on the streets outside. Must balance support for free trade against complaints of Mexican farmers, who say it is destroying their livelihoods.