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Agriculture has always been the make or break issue of the sixth WTO ministerial in Hong Kong and as the meeting approaches it would take a miracle for agreement to be reached. But Raj Patel from the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal notes in an interview with Pambazuka News that even if a deal was reached it would have to ignore the demands and needs of agriculturalists in the Global South. That’s because “nothing, not one thing, in the detail of the EU and US proposals, promises any substantive change in their policies of subsidising rich farmers in the EU and US, while exploiting poorer ones elsewhere.”

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The agricultural sector has been an area of focus for you. What are your views on this World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting in Hong Kong? Is there any hope at all for an improvement in relation to the agricultural sector?

RAJ PATEL: Since the WTO began in 1995, the agreement on agriculture has been a battlefield, mainly between the European Union and the United States. There have been ministerial meetings in Singapore 1996, Geneva 1998, Seattle 1999, Doha 2001, Cancun 2003 and Hong Kong is the sixth ministerial conference.

At each of these conferences, save perhaps Singapore, the fight over agriculture has caused a great deal of collateral damage, particularly in terms of the demands made of developing countries. By the same token, though, when developing countries have had the opportunity and courage to raise their voices, the advance of WTO-style trade liberalisation has been halted - this happened in Seattle and Cancun in particular.

In Doha, however, the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) was written, and it's a roadmap for trade liberalisation to which many poor countries chose, under duress but with the possibility of aid, to subscribe. The US and EU have been effective in using the DDA as a sop to countries concerned about how trade liberalisation in agriculture will affect their rural populations - usually the poorest people. But the EU vs US agricultural trade spat continues to fester. And in recent weeks, despite a great deal of diplomacy, strong-arming, sweet-talking and belly rolling, the EU and US haven't managed to come to any agreement on agriculture.

As the Hong Kong ministerial approaches, it's unlikely that an agreement will be reached. The important point, though, is this - if an agreement *is* reached, it will have to be one that ignores the demands and needs of agriculturalists in the Global South - because nothing, not one thing, in the detail of the EU and US proposals, promises any substantive change in their policies of subsidising rich farmers in the EU and US, while exploiting poorer ones elsewhere.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The major sticking area with regards negotiations over agriculture lies in the issue of farm subsidies. The European Union and United States pay billions of dollars of subsidies to their farmers, undermining the ability of farmers in other parts of the world to compete with products from the EU and USA. What progress do you think there will be on this issue? Isn't the focus on subsidies slightly misleading in that it obscures the problems associated with an export based agricultural system that undermines food sovereignty?

RAJ PATEL: Among the reasons that the WTO is unfair is that it allows the EU and US to maintain their agricultural systems and supports in place, while demanding that developing countries remove their protections for agriculture. In the press and in certain NGO circuits, this debate has collapsed into one about subsidies, with strong arguments being made that subsidies are hurting the poor in the Global South. The argument runs like this - the EU and US massively subsidise their farmers. The subsidies encourage farmers to over-produce. The surfeit of agricultural goods needs to be disposed of somewhere, and that somewhere is the Global South. This means that farmers in the Global South are competing against products that have a much lower cost of production precisely because of the subsidies.

This undoubtedly happens in some circumstances. Most recently publicised has been the case of cotton, where the subsidies given to US cotton producers directly affects the output in West Africa, to the tune of $250 million in direct costs, and $1 billion in indirect costs, according to the Cotton Producers Association of Africa.

In the main, however, the subsidies debate is a red herring. The best way to see this is to consider what would happen if the US were, for example, suddenly to make all its subsidies disappear. An increasing number of studies addressing this issue have found that supply wouldn't change in the short or medium term. Indeed, under some scenarios, production would increase, as US farmers struggled to increase output to cover the shortfall in their subsidies. This would have the effect of worsening the situation for farmers in the Global South in the short term, and in the long term, world prices would increase only modestly (3% by 2020, according to one model).

The US recently put on the table an offer to reduce some of its farm supports by 60% in the next five years, in exchange for market access. But the devil lies in the details of these proposals - the US is taking something of a gamble that its exports will win on market access what they lose in direct farm payments. The gamble, however, isn't a fair one - the US still retains the right to expand its 'non-trade-distorting' subsidies, which will nonetheless keep farmers at a competitive advantage, while promising to cut the narrowly defined 'trade-distorting subsidies'. Their effective reduction in subsidies would be around 2%, but the market access they want in return is a reduction of between 50-90%. The chalice is, to switch metaphors, poisoned.

The good news, for those opposed to the WTO’s vision of agriculture at least, is that the EU response to this salvo is constrained. The EU trade Minister, formerly a disgraced UK minister, Peter Mandelson, is a firm believer in the free market. But he is not, however, able to negotiate as he pleases. The EU’s own intra-national politics has put some firm constraints down as to what he is, and is not, allowed to concede. The US is pushing for more than he is able to give – indeed, some French politicians have already argued that he has overstepped his mandate. And this means the very real threat of deadlock at the WTO in Hong Kong – any broad agreement can’t happen without an agreement on agriculture, and it doesn’t look like any agreement on agriculture is forthcoming.

This is not to say that US and EU farm support systems should remain untouched - far from it. The lion's share of EU and US agricultural subsidies go to the rich, with some estimates suggesting that 60% of subsidies go to the richest 20%. There's clearly need for radical change. But this change in and of itself won't bring the manna that many hope it will. The problem is more complex, and lies in the systemic overproduction of crops in the North, and in the vested and wealthy interests that profit from this overproduction, and from a model that promotes export-based agriculture.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the outcomes of Hong Kong, deadlock or otherwise, will still leave the WTO largely intact. This is an unhappy state of affairs, and one that needs urgent redress not within the Ministerial, but beyond it.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: In a recent paper, ‘International Agrarian Restructuring and the Practical Ethics of Peasant Movement Solidarity’, (Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) you set out to show "how the international agrarian counter-movement is not a reflex or knee-jerk response...but one that has to work with complex formations of identity, memory and militancy". Can you elaborate on the point that you are making here and how this relates to the WTO?

RAJ PATEL: The resistance to the WTO is complex and global. Many of the organisations that are fighting the increase of the WTO's ambit in agriculture are farming organisations with roots in a long history of liberation struggle. The Landless Peoples' Movement in Brazil, the MST, for instance, see themselves as the inheritors of the traditions of the Peasant Leagues in post-war Brazil. The Indian "Karnataka State Farmers Association", KRRS, with over 10 million members, sees itself as continuing the Gandhian vision of national liberation.

The way that these movements respond to the WTO isn't a call for increasing tariffs or subsidies or any of the other terms used by the international trade set. They want to take back the debate around agriculture from international capital, and that means taking back its meaning. Chukki Nanjundaswamy, one of the leaders of the KRRS, puts it like this: "We don't want the government to give us charity - we don't want subsidies in that sense. What we want is the fair price for what we grow - the 'scientific price'. This means a price that includes a fair price for the labour, and the inputs, and the land. Nothing more. Nothing less. But also, we want to take back control of how our food is distributed. We want to cut out the middlemen, the little thugs and the big corporations that steal from all of us. So we want to sell our food directly to the people who will eat it - we'll get more for our food, and they'll have to pay less. Our motto is 'One rupee more for the producer, one less for the consumer.'"

This is a solid example of the Gandhian idea of self-sufficiency at work, drawing on a history of anti-colonial struggle, and changing the way that agricultural commerce is structured. And this is a direct attack on the WTO, which seeks to structure domestic agriculture through structuring the international trade rules.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: In the same paper, you write that apart from dumping, deskilling, inequality and concentration of ownership, one of the features of people in the agriculture sector under neo-liberalism is a kind of collective amnesia. This is an interesting point - can you explain what you mean?

RAJ PATEL: One of the processes of international commerce since the second world war has involved the rise of new technologies in farming. An example of this is the 'Green Revolution', a series of technologies that involved irrigation, agrotoxins (pesticides and herbicides) and improved varieties that were compatible with these kinds of technologies. The yields from these new varieties were undoubtedly higher than before they were introduced.

But there are two problems - the first is that with the introduction of these technologies that encourage a monoculture of one kind or another, other kinds of farming systems, often more sophisticated, involving intercropping a range of crops in ways suited to local conditions, has been forgotten.

This is a problem today, because the Green Revolution technologies are failing, leaving behind soils that require extensive reconstruction after years of being soaked in toxins. Agro-ecological forms of farming, which preceded the Green Revolution in some cases, would have offered a way of managing this situation - but the skills have been lost.

There is, however, a second kind of amnesia - one that relates to the technologies used on farms today. The technologies are presented, by the chemical companies, and then by governments, as the only solution out of the trap of low productivity agriculture. Yet, as Prof. S.S. Gill of the Punjab Agricultural University points out, the Green Revolution was a substitute for land reform – it was a way of tamping down popular aspirations for radical change in the face of hunger. His work on the increases in productivity that have happened when landless and land-insecure rural people have been given land show that, in fact, productivity also shoots through the roof.

This isn’t to say that the main reason for land reform should be productivity increases - there are many better reasons than that. Yet we are encouraged to forget these political options in the face of modern farming technology. And this is symptomatic of a broader forgetting - a forgetting of people living in rural areas. Farming policy in almost every country world wide has placed a lower value on the fates of people living in rural areas, and their persistently higher rates of poverty, disease and education are tragic testament to this.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: How does/has the agricultural sector acted as a site of struggle against the neo-liberal system espoused by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and WTO? What examples are there from Africa?

In Africa, the history of colonialism has left its mark most centrally on the factor of production most necessary for agriculture – land. A number of governments, and the South African government is the most ardent exponent of these philosophies on the continent, have sought to redistribute land on a willing-buyer-willing-seller model. The model, approved and proselytised by the World Bank, is one where the owner of the land, who has invariably received the land through a process of colonialism, agrees to part with it at an invariably high market rate, and the buyer, invariably without the support s/he needs to successfully finance and grow on the land, pays for the land, only to default on the loan a few years later. At the recent Land Summit in South Africa, and due almost exclusively to three years of hard campaigning by the Landless Peoples’ Movement, the government admitted that the willing-buyer-willing-seller policy has been a failure.

More broadly, the loans doled out by the Bank and the Fund have imposed requirements to repay loans in dollars. These dollars can only be gained through exporting domestically produced goods. When African countries have been unable to repay the loans, the Bank and Fund have been willing to re-lend to governments, but with the loans have come conditionalities, or terms – governments are to reduce their ‘interference’ in the market by dismantling the supports for agriculture to which they have been committed. These supports include guaranteed prices, paid through marketing boards. With the end of guaranteed prices, and with farmers exposed to international competition, this has cemented African agriculture into a barely reconstructed version of their colonial form – providing cheap agricultural commodities to the Global North and, increasingly, large countries in the Global South, notably China.

Cotton, mentioned above, is just one example. African countries are driven by a range of key export crops, from coffee to cut flowers – all of which have a range of increasingly liberalised trade rules governing them, authored at the World Trade Organization. This process, of loan, conditions, and export agriculture, is why the Fund, Bank, and WTO are known as the ‘three sisters’ of neoliberalism.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Community struggles are often at the coal-face of resistance to decisions made at forums like the WTO. To what extent do you think these 'voices' are heard at meetings like the one in Hong Kong?

RAJ PATEL: The WTO is meant to be a forum of governments, and to the extent that governments represent the will of their people, peoples’ voices ought to be heard at the WTO. It just happens that very few governments represent any kind of popular will, and the few that are able to represent these are sidelined, bought off, or brow-beaten.

With this in mind, the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, arranged to meet directly with the head of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, the man who had Peter Mandelson’s job until he was elected to be the ‘impartial head’ of the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, the delegation was limited by the WTO to fifteen people, and when arriving at the WTO building in Geneva, only one member of the delegation, the Via Campesina representative from Norway, was allowed in. This is indicative of the extent to which ‘voices’ are heard at the WTO. In Hong Kong, there are already rumours of activists being blacklisted, and prevented from entering the country during the ministerial, and with the Hong Kong authorities making it difficult for these representatives to find accommodation so that they’ve somewhere to sleep after they’ve made their voices heard.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What would be some of the key features of a food sovereignty model?

There are alternatives to the WTO. Via Campesina has proposed a model called “food sovereignty”. It’s not something of which many people have heard, so it’s worth jotting down a quick definition: “is the right of peoples to define
their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; [and] to restrict the dumping of products in their markets . . . Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.”

The main point here is not to replace one neo-liberal dogma with another, but to take seriously the right of ‘peoples’ to define their own food and agriculture. In other words, a food sovereignty model would look significantly more democratic than the prevailing one. But this is to understate the case – because we’ve not yet seen this kind of democracy at work on a sustained basis at a national level anywhere in the world. It’s a call for a direct democracy, not a representative one. This means a call for engagement, debate and contestation – the kinds of things that we see very little of outside the smoke-filled rooms at the WTO. It calls for every person to take more direct responsibility and claim over their lives – it’s a call for empowerment. It means, of course, disempowering those who profit from the current agricultural system – but it also means empowering those who profit least – rural and urban producers, and consumers around the world. And we’re a constituency that richly deserves more control over our lives.

* Interview conducted via email. Please send comments to [email protected]