After Seattle

Following Failed Trade Talks, the Debate Rages On

When a world conference on the once-sleepy issue of trade came to Seattle late last November, the press got the soundbyte they were looking for: 50,000 demonstrators crowded the city, leaving a trail of shattered windows and police barricades in their wake. But despite a handful of anarchists, the real story lies in the mass of ordinary citizens who came together, peacefully and intelligently, to temporarily halt in its tracks one of the world’s most powerful organizations.

Protestors, from farmers and students to environmental activists and union members, linked arms and voices in a week-long demonstration against the World Trade Organization (WTO), clamoring for changes that would place environmental protection and basic human and labor rights above short-term profit. Both a legislative and judicial body, the WTO has governed the flow of goods, services and money across international boundaries since 1995, negotiating and enforcing global trade laws in what has become a distinctly undemocratic process.

Though the Third Ministerial meeting in Seattle may have officially taken place, its real purpose, to launch the Millenium Round of trade liberalization talks between 135 member nations, never materialized. Activists filled the streets, blocking access to buildings and successfully delaying the start of negotiations. The event, which did not end before a dusk-to-dawn curfew and state of emergency involving the National Guard, was one that activist Vandana Shiva, director of the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, called a “historic watershed.” And the real Millenium Round, Shiva says, is the beginning of a new democratic debate about the future of the Earth and its people.

“Seattle was literally a stage where issues of corporate concentration of power, environmental degradation and biotechnology were pulled out of the corporate closet and put in the public’s eye,” says Scotty Johnson, rural outreach coordinator for the Grass Roots Effectiveness Network (GREEN). “It was a tremendous step toward revitalizing democracy and putting citizen input back into global control.”

Because the WTO is a bastion of unelected trade representatives, deciding the fate of national laws in meetings clouded by secrecy, Jennifer Gleason, staff attorney with the U.S. Office of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, says, “Any advances our governments have made in protecting our rights are being eroded by WTO agreements and decisions implementing them.”

WTO rules are designed to limit government actions that affect trade. Any member nation may accuse another of violation of trade agreements, charging that health, human rights and environmental laws act as unfair “trade barriers.” The scenario has already upended U.S. regulations under the Endangered Species Act, which required that sea turtle protection devices be used by shrimp trawlers harvesting for American markets. Also affected were Clean Air Act gasoline rules designed to reduce smog.

The U.S. has not merely played victim: Waving the banner of free trade, it successfully thwarted a European ban on beef treated with growth hormones that are suspected carcinogens. “Whether the issue is food safety, invasive species, hazardous materials, or toxic waste, it’s now a question of the environmental precautionary principle hanging in the balance,” says Victor Menotti, director of the environmental program at the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization.

The disparity between corporate influence and public interest was blatant in the sponsorship of the Ministerial itself (co-chaired by Boeing and Microsoft), say activists. This notion was also recently recognized in federal court. Just days after the failed talks, a Seattle judge ordered federal advisory committees on paper and wood products to include an environmental representative. Until now, the committees, which advise the U.S. trade representative on issues from global warming to import regulations, have been represented entirely by industry, and there are still about two dozen such committees that have never had any environmental representation whatsoever.

“The Seattle meeting is doomed to succeed because too much is at stake,” said Director General Michael Moore only somewhat prophetically in the November 30th opening address. The Ministerial was certainly doomed, and what was at stake—over 150 proposals concerning topics from fisheries and government procurement to subsidies and electronic commerce—remain all but decided.

For many, however, what was accomplished in Seattle lies solidly in what was not accomplished. One of the unresolved issues was the “Global Free Logging Agreement,” a U.S. proposal to eliminate all tariffs on wood products, which had activists fearing the acceleration of unsustainable logging in the remaining half of the world’s original forest cover. According to American Lands Alliance, it would also have threatened to roll back what few mitigations for forest protection currently exist, such as certification programs, green procurement laws, and safeguards against invasive species.

The American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) claims no news is good news for family farmers, who would have suffered from the U.S. negotiating position on agriculture—one which ACGA President Keith Dittrich calls “an attempt to dismantle farm programs here and around the world.” And Friends of the Earth International breathed a sigh of relief after a working group to hasten trade in biotechnology and genetically engineered foods failed to form.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky says that the collapsed talks resulted more from complicated substance than the opposition outside. But whatever the reason, there seems to be no doubt that the political climate was affected by the demonstrations. Talks will now move to WTO headquarters in Geneva, giving activists cause for continued vigilance. “Decisions can happen at any time,” says Martin Wagner of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, “We don’t need a ministerial for that.”

Though Seattle may have moved out of the spotlight, the issues which drew people to it this past November continue to resonate, and the protest is far from over. “Unlike the storefronts that can be repaired in a few days, the hillsides scraped clean of trees and the silted up salmon streams are ruined for a lifetime,” says Lance Howell, a woodworker from the Northwest who joined the throngs protesting the unhindered flow of global trade. “We were in Seattle with tens of thousands of others who were tired of seeing the world we know sacrificed for profit, tired of living with diminishing expectations, tired of feeling powerless and afraid. We recognized each other in Seattle and know now that together we can turn the tide.”