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Leading Article: Senseless in Seattle

THE BATTLE lines are drawn. In the next few days tens of thousands of protesters will descend on Seattle in a bid to stop a new round of trade negotiations by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). They see themselves as Luke Skywalkers to the WTO's Darth Vader, fighting to save the world from the threat of increased poverty and environmental destruction. Their ultimate ambition: to destroy the WTO and the liberal trading system it represents. On the other side of the barricades will be a small army of corporate lobbyists, many of them linked to Western governments. They see themselves - and the WTO - as defenders of a global free trading system that enshrines the principles of multilateralism and promises unprecedented prosperity. Both sets of protagonists pose a profound threat to a constituency that will not be well represented in Seattle - namely, the world's poor.

Some of the arguments advanced by critics of the Seattle talks would be laughable, were it not for the fact that they enjoy such wide currency. The anti-WTO witch-hunter general in the UK is Teddy Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist magazine. His view is that the only beneficiaries of trade are giant companies for whom "free trade" means the freedom to exploit, plunder and pollute; it follows that more trade is bad trade. Mr Goldsmith could usefully spend some time discussing his views with people in the developing world whose livelihoods depend on, and have often been enhanced by, international trade.

For millions of poor women in Bangladesh, textile exports have created employment opportunities and the income needed to buy food and send children to school. In Tanzania, desperately poor smallholder farmers can earn more by selling coffee to the EU than by producing for the domestic market. And trade has played a pivotal role in sustaining the economic growth that has lifted 371 million people out of poverty in east Asia over the past two decades. Yes, trade has the potential to inflict social and environmental damage. But it can also act as a force for human development. For many millions of poor people, access to markets in rich countries is literally a matter of life and death.

According to those behind the barricades in Seattle, poor countries should abandon the pursuit of prosperity through trade, in favour of self-reliance. Yet the fact is that trade is now the main engine of growth in the global economy, having grown at twice the rate of world output for the past decade. International trade gives poor countries access to rich consumers, generating employment and investment in the process. Such countries would be the main victims of any descent into protectionism, not least because they lack the economic power and retaliatory capacity to defend their interests. That is why they need a rules-based system to govern world trade - and it is why so many developing countries are lining up to join the WTO.

None of which is to suggest that what currently pass for multilateral trade rules are even remotely tolerable. They are rigged in favour of the rich, often with devastating implications for the poor. Western protectionism costs the world's poorest countries about $700bn a year - 14 times what they receive in aid. Rich nations have failed to act on their pledges to phase out trade barriers against textiles and clothing, the biggest manufacturing export from the developing world. The market for agricultural goods - which are often all that poor countries have to sell - remains closed behind a bewildering array of trade barriers, most of them designed to protect wealthy farmers and corporations. At Seattle, the United States will try to force developing countries to open their markets further to the import of subsidised farm exports from the West, destroying the livelihoods of local farmers in the process. It must not succeed.

Brazen hypocrisy on the part of rich governments is not the only problem. All too often, WTO rules provide a convenient smoke screen for corporate self-interest. Take the case of intellectual property. Under the WTO, the patents protection enjoyed by multinational companies has already been extended. Now the EU and the US are insisting, in flagrant violation of the Biodiversity Convention, that patenting law be applied to all plants and animals. That is an act of bio-piracy, made worse by the fact that companies are already patenting traditional medicines and plants produced in countries such as India and Brazil. And not all of the losers are in the south. The WTO is being used by American companies as a battering ram to open up the European market for genetically modified foods and growth hormones.

Major changes are needed if the WTO is to succeed in laying the foundations for a trading system that contributes towards human development and environmental sustainability. The Seattle talks should focus on improving market access for poor countries and ending agricultural export dumping by rich countries. As India has argued, the intellectual property rules should be torn up and rewritten to reflect the interests of the world's poor. The alternative demanded by the Seattle protesters may be unthinkable. But what we have now is unacceptable.