Cairns Group farmers launch European offensive

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 16 Oct (IPS) - The rural entrepreneurs of the Cairns Group member countries are joining their governments to form an anti-protectionist bloc fighting for agricultural liberalisation in talks underway at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

An alliance known as Cairns Group Farm Leaders initiated contacts with WTO authorities and trade negotiators of the European Union (EU), one of the stalwarts in agricultural protectionism.

The rural leaders plan to closely monitor the talks, which began last January at the WTO, says Australian Ian Donges, co-ordinator of the entrepreneurs visiting Geneva this week.

Among the Cairns Group farmers, there is a widespread feeling of frustration due to the rising subsidies granted to their counterparts in many industrialised countries over the last few years, according to Donges.

The wealthy member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) in 1999 spent a combined total of $360 billion to cover losses in their agricultural sectors. Meanwhile, the 18 countries of the Cairns Group, which represent 750 million people and one-quarter of world agricultural trade, emphasise the efficiency of their farming, which operates with scant or zero state aid. The growing discouragement of Cairns Group farmers arises from reports that subsidies elsewhere have returned to levels before 1995, the year when the Uruguay Round of international trade talks concluded with the creation of the WTO and established the first accord on agriculture.

Closely linked with this market-distorting protectionism is the evident decline in prices of agricultural commodities, which leads to an unprecedented level of frustration, commented Donges.

Cairns Group farmers now wonder where the WTO is headed policy-wise and what the trade reforms hold in store for them, he added.

The Cairns Group Farm Leaders propose launching a campaign to explain to consumers, particularly Europeans, the point of view of those who want further liberalisation of the agricultural sector.

In Europe, through the protectionist regimen of the Common Agricultural Policy, 97 percent of the population maintains the region’s farmers, who represent just three percent, emphasised Massimo Coda of the Rural Association of Paraguay.  European consumers are unaware of the consequences of this distortion on the economies and the environment of those countries with more efficient farming sectors, said Coda.

In order to maintain competition with the subsidised farm production of Europe or the United States, farmers in countries like Paraguay and Brazil see themselves forced to extend the agricultural lands, often through deforestation, he explained.

The disappearance of the world’s forests is one of the causes behind global warming, according to the scientists serving as advisers to the countries that are Parties to the Convention on Climate Change. The Netherlands, for example, with one of the highest rates of farm subsidies, will suffer extensive flooding of its lowlands as a consequence of rising ocean levels, one of the effects of global warming.

The Cairns Group agricultural leaders hope to raise awareness among the European public about the environmental deterioration caused worldwide by protectionist agricultural policies.

The rural entrepreneurs also wield the argument of illegal immigration in an attempt to convince the Europeans. Due to the fall in farm incomes, countries with agriculture-based economies, such as Argentina and Uruguay, have begun to see a wave of people emigrating to Europe, where they often enter the bloc illegally, Coda said.

In a meeting with the rural leaders, WTO Director-General Michael Moore acknowledged that agricultural negotiations are going slowly but assured them they are following the correct course. The talks are underway in special sessions of the WTO Agriculture Committee, which established a timeframe, ending next March, for countries or regional blocs to present their proposals.  Substantive negotiations are to begin thereafter.

The Cairns Group presented an initiative to eliminate export subsidies, such as those applied by the United States and Europe. Another Cairns Group proposal attempts to obtain reductions leading to the elimination of domestic subsidies, which are currently implemented by the same two agricultural powers as well as Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Norway. The group also announced that in November it would present a proposal to the WTO on market access for farm products.

The Cairns Group is made up of Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Fiji, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay. .

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