K.O. The WTO
With the World Trade Organisation still reeling after the recent protests and failed trade negotiations in Seattle, Si Mitchell finds out why the world is suddenly taking a stance against the WTO and its stealthy ambitions.
"There are 25 million milk producing animals in Mongolia, but in the city market places you can only buy German butter. Similarly last year Britain exported 47 million kilograms of butter to Europe while importing 43 million kilograms from the same countries. Here in Devon, New Zealand butter is a quarter of the price of local butter. It's insane."
Founder of the Dartington based International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), Helena Norberg Hodge, is unimpressed by well travelled dairy produce. To coincide with the World Trade Organisation's Seattle conference at the end of the month, ISEC's parent body, the International Forum on Globalisation, is holding its own 'teach-ins' to alert people to the need to reverse the global economy, messianically being pursued by corporate bosses and politicians alike. In his document 'Small is Beautful, Big is Subsidised', ISEC's US programmes director Stephen Gorelick, argues that the efficiencies of scale, at the heart of global trade, are a fallacy. "Governments are encouraging growth at every level. This is costing people their jobs, and breaks down the community fabric that depends on healthy local economies; they are eroding democracy and widening the gap between rich and poor and irreparably damaging ecosystems and human health across the planet."
From education, to aid, to infrastructure the quest for growth is insidious. From Bodmin to Bangalore we are told that local customs and knowledge are inferior to the glossy prosperity fed to us by Western media. While people in the poorer south are goaded to be like those in the affluent north, northerners are made to feel 'greedy', and responsible for the plight of those in the south.
"It's more complex than that," says Norberg Hodge. "We need a shift in direction towards localising economic activity to strike a balance between international trade and production at home."
This is not about people in colder climates going without bananas, but about doing away with the unnecessary intensive, mass scale, production and transportation of goods, and the petrochemical pollution that entails. A recent study in Germany, found the ingredients of a single tub of yoghurt had travelled 1,000 km from four different countries. In Arkansas the US government are stumping up $90 million to build an airport that will handle poultry-carrying 747s with the aim of opening up Japan as "a boom market for US fresh chicken imports". Somerfield supermarkets transport Cornish Cauliflowers to the north of England to be wrapped in cellophane to be brought back to the West country for sale.
In 1970 there were over 100,000 dairy farms in Britain. That figure has been halved and small farms are continuing to disappear at the rate of 100 a month. The biggest ten per cent of farms now account for half the UK output. Gorelick says: "Export led agriculture usually demands large scale monocultural plantations, industrial scale machinery, and heavy chemical inputs; but it does not require many farmers, and a large portion of the agricultural labour force is left redundant." Britain has shed 88,000 rural jobs in the last ten years. Despite this, governments continue to oil the wheels of growth. Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, megadams, motorway networks and airports are of little use to small traders. Treaties and regulations implemented by the WTO and EU may benefit multinational cross border businesses, but they regularly penalise the local traders, whose plight is inaccurately touted alongside that of the megacorps in media calls for 'trade freedom'.
It is unfortunate that it took the jingoism, unleashed in the latest siege of the Anglo-French trade war, for people to consciously connect export led trade and the decimation of Britain's farming industry. If it wasn't for the corporate quest for maximum payback from minimum outlay we may not be living in dread of hormone injected US beef, GM food, vanishing forests or melting ice caps.
"I think our biggest enemy is narrow focus, more than conscious evil intention," says Norberg Hodge, referring to the blinkered arguments that surround poverty and pollution. "The government and corporate elite are so fixated with growth that they refuse to contemplate alternatives." She goes on to criticise some environmentalists and some of the leading NGOs - who see globalisation as part of the solution - for refusing to see the link between aid projects and the destruction of local economies and culture. The previously self sufficient people of Ladakh in northern India are being encouraged to grow flowers for export to Holland. Many like them, forced by indebted governments courting international monetary aid, have their lands turned into production lines for the richer nations. Microcredit systems of small loans promoted by The World Bank shackle previously stable, though less cash intensive, economies to the notoriously corrupt and unstable speculative currency market. The cash crop system has no need for the majority of rural people who flock to the cities to compete for jobs that don't exist.
What money is left in communities is soon sucked out. "Studies indicate that of the money spent in a typical McDonalds, nearly 75 per cent leaves the local economy," says Gorelick. A DETR report in 1998 found new UK superstores to be taking up to half the trade of local food retailers, while the National Retail Planning Forum calculated each new store caused a net loss of 276 jobs as local traders cut back or closed.
However pressure can be brought on the politicians, companies and self styled international trade police such as the WTO. People all over the world are rejecting the monoculture. Buy local campaigns, community banks, tool lending libraries, ecovillages, LETS schemes, community supported agriculture and farmers markets are all on the increase.
Dave Lang, a livestock farmer from South Gloucestershire, was on the brink of bankruptcy when he joined a farmers market. He now trades in 20 small town markets a month all within forty miles of his farm. "The public can talk to the actual producer (a stipulation for stall holders) and find out how the crop was grown or what the animal was fed on, they can even come down to the farm to see," says Lang. "People are amazed by what's in season and have lost touch with what food tastes like." Unlike McDonalds, 100 per cent of the money spent at a farmers market goes into the local economy.
There are over 40,000 members in Britain's expanding network of 450 Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS). Participants receive credits for their contributions which are traded for services from other members. Babysitters trade with language teachers, and therapists with hairdressers. "It's not just for those that can't afford it. It's about taking things into your own hands, uniting communities and building up old and new skills," says Rae Orr from Letslink UK. As they act outside of the mainstream economy LETS trading does not register on conventional prosperity scales.
Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, says that the corporations driving this global economy, are merely doing what we programmed them to do. He suggests that each shareholder should be liable for 'collateral damage' to bystanders or environmental harm. "If you reap the rewards when the going is good, why shouldn't you be held responsible for that company when it becomes criminally liable." He feels that fewer shares would be traded and the worst offending companies would collapse. "Instead of simply choosing the biggest cash cows, potential shareholders would carefully investigate the backgrounds of the companies they were about to sink their money into. They would think twice about buying into Philip Morris or Monsanto.
We must rewrite the rules of incorporation in such a way that a company caught repeatedly and wilfully dumping toxic wastes, damaging watersheds, violating anti-pollution laws, harming employees, customers or the people living near its factories, engaging in price fixing, defrauding its customers, or keeping vital information secret, automatically has its charter revoked, its assets sold off and the money funnelled into a superfund for its victims."
Company bashing legislation is unlikely, hampered not least by the 'revolving door' between government post and boardroom seat. Transport Secretary Steven Norris now heads the Road Hauliers Association and GM retailer Lord Sainsbury chairs the select committee scrutinising GM crops. This is no new phenonemon. In 1953 General Motors president, Charles Wilson, was appointed US defense secretary. "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States," he said before pushing a 41,000 mile interstate highway system past Congress as a 'national security' measure. (In the 1920s the same company along with Standard Oil and Fyrestone Tyres was found guilty of buying up and systematically destroying the street-car systems of over eighty US cities. Each company was fined a laughable $5,000 and car dependency was born.) Economist and author of 'When Corporations Rule the World', David Korten, likens global capitalism to a cancer in the world economy. "Curing the capitalist cancer to restore democracy, the market and our human rights and freedoms will require virtually eliminating the institution of the limited-liability for-profit public corporation." He told SQUALL: "We need radical campaign finance reform to get big money and corrupt politicians out of politics. An immediate agenda is to stop the WTO from negotiating new agreements that further weaken democracy and speed environmental and social breakdown. The WTO should be closed, while we establish mechanisms under the United Nations to regulate transnational finance, and trade."
There have been small victories. In May 1998 the New York City Attorney General revoked the charters for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute, on the grounds that they are tobacco-funded fronts that serve "as propaganda arms of the industry". While last year the people of Arcata California voted to "ensure democratic control of all corporations conducting business within the city." Recent events in the Microsoft saga suggest that even the ridiculous wealth of Bill Gates may not guarantee his stranglehold on PC system software. All farmer Dave Lang asks for is "a level playing field" to compete with artificially cheap mass-produced imports.
Helena Norberg Hodge believes we must reconnect with our immediate environment. She says region specific education is fundamental to this, not ignoring other cultures, but being more aware of our own. Using local produce does help the local economy, it requires less energy, packaging, preservation and transport and enables those in other communities to look to meeting their own needs with their own resources. "We need a shift in the balance between international trade and production at home. We need to move away from the 'teenage boy culture' that demands mobility, independence and a fear of growing old." Wolfgang Sachs, project director at Germany's Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy told SQUALL that it is not about bringing Southern developing cultures 'up' to our level of lifestyle and consumption, but about reconfiguring our own 'developed' societies to consume and impact less. "We need enthusiasm, competence and passion, a different kind of imagination. Things are happening but they are drops in an ocean. But even drops can change the colour of the water." The message is simple. Think global, act local.
* Read Si Mitchell's reports on the recent anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle in SQUALL's Frontline Communique.
BANGIN' IN BANGA - The 2nd PGA conference - August-1999
CRASH, BANG, WALLOP, WOT A PICTURE - provocation at London N30 demo? - Nov-1999
BATTLE FOR SEATTLE 1 - On the streets of Seattle during WTO Summit - Dec-1999
BATTLE FOR SEATTLE 2 - 2nd report from Seattle during WTO Summit - 6-Dec-1999
Big Rattle In Seattle - free to watch online - a documentary filmed on streets of Seattle during the demonstrations against the WTO - by Guerillavision, featuring Si Mitchell