Small farmers say they have much to lose from WTO deal

Coffee grower Denis Cruz sniffs a handful of yellow-green beans produced from his Honduran farm and sighs.

“They would be worth more if I could sell them through Fair Trade,” he says, “and the land would be healthier—there wouldn’t be the same pressure on it.”

Malian cereal grower Ibrahim Coulibaly is equally despondent.

“Tariff cuts? If there were no import tariffs in my country, we would not be able to sell our food—we would become landless,” he says with an angry gesture.

Bangladeshi smallholder Shaban Ali has threatened to take up arms if his government allows big American food companies to sell their patented seed in his country.

“There will be revolution—we will fight for the right to our own seed,” he says clenching his powerful fists.

The concerns of farmers all over the developing world are as varied as the lands they till.

But as delegates from the 150 members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meet in Hong Kong this week to hammer out a deal aimed at guaranteeing worldwide free trade, many growers are united in fear that liberalisation will only worsen their problems.

From market access for their produce and security of vital seed supplies to price-distorting import-export quotas, growers the world over are closely watching how the talks will affect issues vital to them.

As far as Cruz is concerned, simply junking the WTO talks, as many opponents propose, would result in “apocalyptic disaster”.

Instead he wants to see a WTO that is responsive to the needs of individual markets.

“The price of coffee keeps going up and up in the shops but we growers are not getting the extra money—in fact we get paid less and less,” said the 28-year-old.

With his three brothers, three sisters and mother he produces about 3 150kg of coffee annally from their 10ha farm.

At today’s prices, following the scrapping of coffee bean price controls in the late 1990s, that is not enough to feed his family.

Caps on exports to the US and many big buyers’ reluctance to buy from organised cooperatives, make it even more difficult for Honduran growers to sell their produce at higher prices.

Tapping into the Fair Trade system, which cuts out the middleman and gives growers more of the retail cost of their beans, is difficult as the market is still relatively small.

Cruz believes market liberalisation would further depress the price of coffee as the huge plantation growers of Brazil would muscle in on the Honduran farmers.

As a result many farmers are turning their land over to less intensive cattle ranching, a move that is reducing the size and attractiveness of the coffee cooperatives.

“When that happens, the growers suffer and the land suffers,” laments Cruz.

Life is not so tough in Bangladesh for Ali, who has managed to increase productivity and fertility of his small plot by diversifying his crops and cultivating them under organic conditions.

“I don’t use any pesticides or fertiliser—as a result my crops are better, bigger and healthier and I have been able to add livestock to my farm,” said the 45-year old farmer who grows seasonal vegetables and rice on his 0.6ha farm.

His concern is that market liberalisaton will lead to what he calls the industrialisation of agriculture in a country where farmers are making an adequate livelihood in a sustainable way.

“My biggest worry is that we will have to start buying our seed from corporations,” he said. “At the moment we get it free—it is kept within the farmers’ realm.
We supply each other.

“But if we have to open that up to outside corporations, we will be held ransom to the seed-patent owners,” he said.

Ali’s community has been stung by reports that farmers in other parts of the country have seen their seed prices increase tenfold since allowing foreign suppliers into the system.

“We won’t accept it,” he says. “There are many angry farmers already in Bangladesh. They are ready to fight.”

Seed security is also an issue for Coulibaly from Mali. But his main concern is that any WTO deal to scrap all import tariffs would leave his tiny nation’s fragile agrarian economy vulnerable to dumping from rich nations.

“Who would but my cereal, fruit and rice then?” demanded the 41-year old whose 17ha farm supports his family of 17.

Local growers are already up in arms over a government decision to cut tariffs, a move which he says unions have managed to reverse.

“If cereals come in from abroad, there will be a flood of people to the cities because we farmers will not be able to afford to grow our crops. There will be chaos,” he said. - Sapa-AFP

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