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Friday, December 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Anti-WTO activists take fight from street to halls of power

Seattle Times business reporter

What is the World Trade Organization?


The basics The WTO is a multilateral organization that sets and enforces rules for about 97 percent of world trade. Established in 1997, the Geneva-based organization provides a forum for the 149 member countries to negotiate standard rules simplifying and enhancing trade.

The issues Since the current round of talks on trade liberalization began in Doha, Qatar, four years ago, a main sticking point has been farm subsidies in developed countries such as the U.S., the European Union and Japan. Poor countries argue their agricultural sectors are damaged when farmers in wealthy countries are encouraged to overproduce. The U.S. and Europe each proposed cutting their farm subsidies, but they are deadlocked on the details — and they want concessions from the developing countries in other areas, such as easier entry into sectors such as energy and financial services.

This week in Hong Kong Both the EU and the U.S. offered to increase their infrastructure aid to the poorest nations so they can better participate in global trade. African countries pressed the U.S. to eliminate $4 billion worth of cotton subsidies. Agreement on the key agricultural-subsidy issues seemed unlikely, with negotiators resigned to continuing the talks after this week's meeting adjourns.

Source: Seattle Times research, Bloomberg News, Reuters

HONG KONG — It's a perfect day for protesting, sunny and warm, with a light breeze making Hong Kong harbor sparkle.

But Christine Martin, who has traveled from Tacoma, is clustered with nine pensive people in a seminar room, learning about poor farmers in the Philippines.

Martin, in a brown fleece shirt, her gray hair pushed back, is on a two-week, $1,750-plus-airfare "Reality Tour" designed to give her an understanding of the World Trade Organization, which is holding trade talks here this week.

"It's providing a different side of the story than you get in the U.S.," said Martin, a 52-year-old former teacher who now develops curriculum for the Pierce College District.

Protests have been linked to WTO ever since the 1999 meeting in Seattle morphed from marches by environmentalists in turtle suits to riots sparked by black-clad anarchists. The WTO, the body that sets the rules of global trade, has come to represent everything that worries people about globalization and free markets, from low-priced foreign competitors to environmental damage and cultural change.

But these days, protesting is only half of an "inside-outside" resistance strategy. Many of the activist groups protesting the WTO's push for uniform global trade rules are also accredited to walk the halls where the talks are held, allowing them to mingle with trade ministers and closely follow the nuances of their proposals.

In previous WTO meetings, these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were stationed outside the main conference center, usually in a nearby hotel. But in Hong Kong, for the first time, they are in the same building.

The presence of such accredited activists is growing. More than 950 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are attending the meetings here this week, up from 108 at the first WTO meeting in 1996 and nearly 700 in Seattle, according to the WTO.

"The role of NGOs here is in fact much more critical than a lot of people know or appreciate," said Phil Bereano, a recently retired University of Washington professor and a specialist in genetically modified crops, who is conducting seminars here.

"There's a large number of us who are serious professionals who are making arguments that are credible and have backgrounds that are credible," he said.

Far from banning these opponents, the WTO gives them meeting rooms and a workroom equipped with computers, copiers and fax machines.

The facilities are free to any group that can show it's a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization working on trade-related issues — even groups that want the talks to collapse.

"They're entitled to their opinion," said Susan Barbier, a WTO official. "How would it look if we only admitted pro-WTO NGOs?"

Those hoping the talks fail include Global Exchange, a San Francisco group that in 1999 helped organize the Seattle protests — and this time organized the Reality Tour that drew five participants, including Martin.

Like many inside activists, Global Exchange director Deborah James hardly looks like a radical. She's wearing a pinstripe skirt suit, with boots.

This week, as South Korean farmers confronted police and took a dousing of pepper spray, James was among about 100 well-dressed NGO members who met with Clodoaldo Hugueney, Brazil's ambassador to WTO, in the same convention center where trade talks were going on.

They were briefed on the closed-door talks, and presented their own views in a sophisticated discussion that showed they've been closely following the details of the negotiations.

Such meetings didn't happen in Seattle.

Hugueney was asked whether Brazil, which has emerged as a leader of the developing countries, should take a harder line on some key agricultural issues. He said Brazil could resist pressure to sign a deal that didn't cut European farm tariffs enough to give Third World farmers access to those markets.

"We will not be pushed into a bad agreement," he said. "And we know how to judge that for ourselves."

Global Exchange is part of Our World Is Not For Sale, a loose alliance of about 200 groups opposed to the WTO that is using the "inside-outside" strategy. The group says its membership has grown from just 70 organizations during the Seattle protests, and includes many groups in developing countries that are concerned about the effects of globalization on their lives and livelihoods.

Our World Is Not For Sale believes the current global trading rules, from the WTO to the many regional agreements such as NAFTA, unjustly empower corporations over people, hurt the environment and trample the rights of disadvantaged workers and farmers.

They want to stop the current round of WTO talks and create a trading system that promotes "economic justice, ecological sustainability, social well-being, gender equity and democratic accountability."

But you don't stop the talks with protests alone, James said. "You stop the round by being engaged in the process and making [trade] ministers stand up for things the developed countries won't agree to."

Getting people into the streets "reminds the ministers that there's a constituency of people they need to respond to," she added.

After meeting with the Brazil negotiator, James met with people like Martin, who had spent the day protesting or attending seminars. James gave them a rundown of what had happened during the day and handed out a newsletter of the day's events, produced by Third World Network, a group working on development issues.

"We're completely allied with those in the street," said Lisa Hoyos, another leader with Global Exchange who also works at the AFL-CIO. "The power comes from creating a collaboration between policy-minded organizations and people affected by these policies — fisherpeople, farmers, people with AIDS and others."

Getting the inside news is important for the thousands who attend as outsiders. Martin took a similar tour to Cuba in 1991, and organized her own study tour of the U.S. in the 1980s.

She has joined the marches and rallies here, as she did in Seattle in 1999. But she values learning in the seminars much more, and said news pictures of protesters clashing with police offended her.

"That's not at all why many of us are here," she said. "But that's what everyone sees."

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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