Jessica Reyes-Cantos is a member of Action for Economic Reforms’ (AER) management collective, lead convener of the Rice Watch and Action Network and chief of staff of Rep. Lorenzo R. Tanada III. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, May 29, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

Hard work lies ahead for a group of developing countries called the G33 (now numbering 45 countries).  Led by Indonesia and the Philippines, the G33 is showing that unity among developing countries is significant in winning concessions in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The G33 was able to formally put into the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) a provision that protects “special products” (SPs). SPs are goods that are critical in ensuring livelihood and food security and rural development. Further, the G33 was able to obtain a “special safeguard mechanism” (SSM) should there be an influx of imports by using either a price trigger or a volume trigger.  The SSM can take the form of raising tariffs beyond the bound rate or even imposing quantitative restrictions against imports.

G33 is a group of net agriculture-importing countries that likewise has a population largely dependent on agriculture.   Put together, the population of all its members totals about 1.84 billion, or close to 30 percent of the world’s total number of people. Farmers from G33 countries have become increasingly marginalized due to trade liberalization coupled with the influx of subsidized agriculture imports from developed countries.

Multi-Pronged Battles

The SP and SSM can be viewed as a victory of sorts for developing countries in a developed countries-dominated WTO negotiations. But as pointed out by Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Segfredo Serrano, who was at the forefront of the agriculture negotiations for the G33:  “We might have won something for agriculture, but WTO isn’t just AoA.”

Indeed it isn’t.  Certainly, we have to look at the entire ministerial declaration.  A lot of people are not happy with the outcome of the Non-Agriculture Market Access (NAMA) governing industrial and fishery products as well as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

But there are some gains in the AoA, among others, that need to be protected and strengthened. To that end, then, vigilance must remain the watchword of those working for the interest of marginalized farmers and farm workers.

Never-Ending Threats

While the Hong Kong Declaration clearly spelled out that SPs must be self-designated, guided by the criterion of food and livelihood security and rural development, there are other interests that seek to erode this.

The United States (US), the European Union (EU), Japan and Australia and even developing countries such as Malaysia and Thailand have put forward proposals that would dilute the gains both in SP and SSM.  Again, this is the classic case of divide-and-rule tactics.

The US wants to limit the use of SSM against countries that are not party to a bilateral or a regional trading arrangement.  For instance, parties to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will not be able to use the SSM against the US and will only use it against countries outside the agreement (like Argentina and Brazil).  As Luisa Bernal of South Centre (a Geneva-based think tank) wrote, “This issue is not trivial; it poses systemic questions regarding the relationship between the multilateral system and the large number of bilateral and regional treaties co-existing with it.”  No wonder then that the US is going out of its way to forge bilateral agreements with other countries.

On the other hand, Thailand and Malaysia have pushed for the use of indicators falling outside the criteria of food and livelihood security and rural development to advance their interest (rice for Thailand, palm oil for Malaysia).  In doing so, they sacrifice their own food security and rural livelihood, should the SP and SSM intent and spirit be diluted.

CSOs in Action

Civil society organizations (CSOs) around the world have joined and signed a statement calling on both the Malaysian and Thai governments to maintain solidarity with other developing countries in the on-going AoA negotiations.

In the coming weeks, CSOs from different parts of Asia will have dialogues as well as organize public manifestations outside the embassies of the US, Thailand and Malaysia from different parts of Asia, to put pressure on these intransigent countries.   These actions are being given boosts of energy after African and least developed countries supported the G33’s call for the preservation of the spirit and intent of the SP and SSM in the AoA.

The Philippines has been at the forefront of the struggle for the SP and SSM. Defending the SP and SSM is a battle that needs to be fought together with the other peoples of the developing world.