Poor countries flex muscles at WTO summit

Global trade talks were on Thursday confronted with growing pressure from poorer countries, with African cotton producers and Latin-American banana exporters leading the charge for fairer treatment.

World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministers held a third day of talks in Hong Kong following sharp criticism late on Wednesday of the United States and the European Union over cotton subsidies and banana tariffs.

The conflicts threaten the outcome of the six-day gathering, which the WTO hopes will yield an agreement laying the groundwork for a sweeping multilateral accord on tearing down trade barriers to be signed by the end of next year.

The group of least-developed countries in the WTO predicted in a statement that “day three is likely to see a hardening of positions unless developed countries begin to offer tangible concessions”.

And in a surprisingly sharp comment, World Bank vice-president Danny Leipziger said: “The major trading economies of the developed world are keeping the big issues off the table, and as long as that happens, the poor will suffer.”

Common ground

Developed and developing countries have so far found little common ground on how to eliminate agricultural subsidies and reduce import tariffs.

Government assistance to farmers in the developed world and steep import duties are seen as barriers to free trade, punishing farmers in poor countries and crippling their ability to compete on global markets.

African cotton producers warned they would refuse to endorse any consensus that might emerge in Hong Kong if rich countries failed to commit themselves to reducing official cotton subsidies.

“We came here to get concrete results, not to hear more proposals that will never be respected,” Ibrahim Malloum, head of the African Cotton Producers’ Association, told reporters.


African producers are seeking the abolition of official assistance for cotton exports — notably by the US — from January 1.

In a plenary session on Wednesday, WTO ministers heard impassioned pleas from West African delegates for prompt action against subsidies in the developed world.

Chad Trade Minister Odjimbaye Soukate Ngarmbatinan, speaking of the plight of African farmers, said “misery is not even an appropriate word to describe their state of utter abjection”.

He added: “I would like to go back home with my soul in peace, my heart in peace, knowing that I’ve met people, human beings worthy of the name, who regardless of borders are prepared to support the cause of those Africans.”

Bananas

Latin-American nations on Wednesday called on the conference to condemn the European Union’s new tariff plan for bananas, saying it violates rules of global commerce.

Mario Jimenez, Honduras’ Agriculture Minister, said it is hard to see how the current round of trade liberalisation talks can advance if the EU fails to change tack.

“If these EU actions are tolerated, if our requests for support and solidarity are met with a collaborative silence, the round, the WTO system, and our developing-economy interests will be the biggest losers,” he said.

Jimenez was backed by counterparts from Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Panama — who said their banana growers would suffer because EU rules would shut them out of the market — as well as the US.

The EU last month announced a new import tariff of €176 per tonne for bananas from Latin-American countries from January 2006.

The new arrangement will replace a contested quota-tariff system that was outlawed by the WTO after it ruled in favour of earlier Latin-American complaints. However, it has already been challenged by Honduras and Panama.

A huge security operation has been mounted around the exhibition centre in central Hong Kong where delegates are meeting to prevent anti-globalisation protests turning violent.

Despite some minor clashes between police and Korean farmers, the rallies have so far been largely peaceful. — AFP

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