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Farm-export countries close ranks on multilateral talks

by Raul Pierri

Punta del Este, Uruguay, 5 Sep 2001 (IPS) - The Cairns Group, which links 18 agricultural exporting nations, urged the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Wednesday to commit itself to a profound reform of farm trade, as a “decisive” step towards launching a new round of multilateral trade talks.

That is one of the main points of the declaration released by the ministers of agriculture and livestock of the Cairns Group countries at the conclusion of their 22nd ministerial meeting in the Uruguayan resort town of Punta del Este, 140 km east of Montevideo.

The group decided to set forth three central demands at the fourth ministerial conference of the WTO, due on 9-13 November in Doha, Qatar: the elimination of farm export subsidies, greater market access, and the reduction of all forms of domestic support that distort agricultural trade and production.

The group also plans to call for special, differentiated treatment for countries of the developing South.

The Cairns Group, named after from the Australian resort city where it was created in 1986, is made up of Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay.

The US and Kenya also attended the three-day meeting in Punta del Este as guests, represented by US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, and Kenya’s Minister of Trade and Industry Nicholas Biwott.

The declaration stated that distortions of the global market for farm products curbed the ability of many developing countries to create strong agricultural sectors and achieve sustained economic growth.

The ministers also maintained that improved market access in a world free of subsidies was essential to promoting development and eliminating poverty. In addition, they said developing countries must produce and export greater quantities of farm products in order to overcome such problems.

The Cairns Group expressed its concern over the $360 billion a year that farmers receive in subsidies in the industrialised countries grouped in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

That amount is $60 billion higher than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Argentina, one of the largest, most developed economies of Latin America.

Protectionism is still strong in industrialised nations, in the shape of tariffs and other barriers like unjustified sanitary standards, the ministers complained. They added that correcting that situation would lead to an increase in global GDP, and to significant gains for developing countries.

But the statement released by the delegates of agribusiness associations of the 18 Cairns Group member countries, who met parallel to the ministers, was even more hard-line. They directly recommended “blocking the start of a new round of multilateral trade negotiations in Doha, unless there are serious attempts at making progress towards reforms of agricultural trade.”

New Zealand’s Minister of Agriculture and Foreign Trade Negotiations, Jim Sutton, said Wednesday that the declaration of the agribusiness leaders was the most strongly worded in the entire history of the Cairns Group. He likened their position to “taking the WTO hostage,” although he added that “we understand the frustration” felt by farmers’ associations.

But the president of the Rural Association of Uruguay, Roberto Symonds, defended the stance taken by his colleagues. “The least we expect is to see concrete advances this time,” he said. “We don’t want our problems to be sidelined at Doha, and to see only the interests of others discussed.”

Argentina’s Secretary of Agriculture, Marcelo Regunaga, praised the position taken by the agribusiness associations, saying it contributed to strengthening the official stance of the Cairns Group.

The Cairns Group underlined that it saw eye to eye on many issues with the US, especially regarding the inclusion of the question of the liberalisation of agriculture trade in the new round of WTO talks.

In his meeting with the ministers of the member countries of the Mercosur trade bloc - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - Tuesday, Zoellick said Washington’s priority was to make the launch of a new round of WTO talks in Doha a success, because the negotiations will create the conditions for free trade.

Progress in the WTO talks would give a boost to other initiatives like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and discussions on free trade between Mercosur and the US, added Zoellick.

Uruguayan Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries, Gonzalo Gonzalez, who presided over the conference along with Australian Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile, said this week’s three-day Cairns Group meeting strengthened the group’s position in the framework of an alliance with the US in search of equal treatment for agriculture in global trade.

For his part, Vaile stressed that key actors like the US were committed to advancing towards the freeing up of farm trade, which, in his view, would guarantee better results at Doha than during the fiasco of the late 1999 WTO ministerial meeting in the US city of Seattle.

The US representatives committed themselves to staying in contact with other members of the Cairns Group to push for the inclusion of farm trade on the agenda of the multilateral talks “without asking anything in exchange,” because it is a “shared objective” of Washington and the farm-export nations.

However, differences cropped up in the talks between the US and Mercosur, which took place parallel to the Cairns Group meeting. Zoellick admitted that it was very unlikely that the US Congress would agree to reduce farm support if the European Union and Japan failed to do so.

The US official underscored that in Mercosur, his country was chiefly interested in biotechnology, e-commerce, services, legal security for investment, and access to government contracts.

On Tuesday, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle highlighted the presence of Veneman and Zoellick in the Punta del Este meeting, saying it demonstrated Washington’s renewed interest in the area.

“Zoellick’s presence is more than a message,” said Batlle, who emphasized that Washington had not sent just any ambassador, but “its Number One” in global trade.

Brazilian Minister of Agriculture Marcus Vinicius Pratini de Moraes said a new round of multilateral trade talks that addressed the demands of the Cairns Group would contribute to overcoming the global recession.

“There are many who say that you don’t negotiate during a recession, and there are many highly protected sectors that do not want the talks to get underway,  but I say that recession is not combatted with trade restrictions, but by more trade,” said the minister. – SUNS4963

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