Subsidy reform proposals spark anti-WTO protests

Threatens poor countries | Activists say limiting government 
subsidy amounts on food threatens world food security

BALI, Indonesia — Thousands of student, farm and anti-World Trade Organization activists marched through the streets of Bali Dec. 3 as WTO talks opened with the possibility of a package of farm policy reforms.


Demonstrators chanted anti-WTO slogans, condemning proposed policy changes as an attack on developing country farmers and the ability of poor countries to promote food security by subsidizing food prices.


While he rejected the arguments, new WTO director general Roberto Azevedo seemed almost pleased that demonstrators were on the streets of this tropical tourist city.


“Demonstrations against the WTO is welcome news,” he told a news conference. 


“It means we are relevant.”


WTO officials fretted in the build-up to the conference that lack of any progress in WTO talks during the past 12 years had marginalized the credibility of the trade organization in the public mind.


Speculation that this meeting could agree to a modest set of farm and food policy rules, the so-called Bali package, brought demonstrators from India, Indonesia, other southeast Asian countries and at least one activist from Quebec.


In a city already filled with police and army presence to guard the WTO event from any potential attacks, several thousand more police were deployed to confine the demonstrators.


At the core of protester arguments was a proposal that developing countries be limited in the amount of money they can pay to subsidize food and farmers in pursuit of food security.


The subsidies could be challenged at the WTO if levels exceeded an established limit based on the domestic economy. The proposal is that countries near or above the limit would have four years grace to reduce subsidies before challenges could be launched.


Protesters said it is an affront to poor countries to thwart their food security goals. Some denounced WTO as a front for rich developed countries and an enemy of developing world farmers and the hungry.


India has called the proposal unacceptable.


Azevedo said the protesters have it wrong.


“There is nothing we are doing that will leave any farmers in the developing world worse off,” he said.


Proposals in the Bali package would commit to eliminating export subsidies by rich countries, expand the volume of imports allowed into many developed countries, often from developing countries, and give developing countries a “peace clause” period of grace to reform their systems.


All those measures would benefit developing world farmers, said Azevedo. “If there is no deal, all of that is off the table and challenges could start immediately,” he said. 


“The way to help developing farmers is to stop distortions in the market and this would do that. This is the first step toward a larger deal, a more ambitious deal,” he said Dec. 3 prior to the end of the WTO session.


He said developing world economies and farmers would be among the biggest losers if the protesters got their wish and ministers rejected the deal.

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