CANCUN, MEXICO, September 13, 2003 (STAR) By Marianne Go  - A trade brawl between developed and developing countries erupted yesterday on the second day of a five-day meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in this Mexican seaside resort.

Members of the WTO are meeting in an attempt to salvage a multilateral deal that will lower barriers to trade in farm products, industrial goods and services.

Sixteen developing countries have agreed not to start negotiations on the "Singapore issues," which involve trade and investment, competition, government procurement and facilitation.

These issues have been the subject of heated debates and protests in developing countries since they were raised several years ago in a WTO meeting held in Singapore.

"We have just declared war," Trade and Industry Secretary Manuel Roxas II announced right after ministers and representatives from 16 developing countries, including the Philippines, issued a press release on their common stand not to agree to start negotiations on the Singapore issues.

The 15 other developing countries that took a stand are Bangladesh, on behalf of the Group of Least Developed Countries; Botswana; China; Cuba; Egypt; India; Indonesia; Jamaica, on behalf of the Caribbean Community; Kenya; Malaysia; Nigeria; Tanzania and Venezuela.

Agriculture lies at the heart of the disputes in this particular WTO summit. Developing countries want rich nations to slash their trade-distorting farm subsidies, since these make imported produce from rich nations cheaper than produce grown locally.

Rich nations, on the other hand, want developing countries to lower barriers to trade.

Roxas said that by refusing to start negotiations on the Singapore issues, developing countries have effectively separated these issues from the contentious agriculture issues.

Developed countries have threatened that if negotiation on the Singapore issues is not started, there would be no discussion either on the agriculture issues.

In a meeting called by Canada to avert the widening of the rift between developed and developing countries, Roxas shot down an attempt to break the consensus reached by the 16 developing countries.

A Canadian official, speaking in behalf of the US, called Roxas aside to offer a possible deal, saying that no progress would be reached on the agricultural issues without an agreement to start negotiations on the Singapore issues.

"We can then all go to the beach," he curtly told the Canadian official.

Any decision to start negotiations on the Singapore issues is supposed to have an "explicit consensus" on the part of all 146 WTO member countries.

With the decision of 16 developing countries not to agree to start negotiations, there is then no explicit consensus, Roxas said.

Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo, for his part, promised to stand firm on the government’s negotiating positions and not succumb to intense pressure from the US.

Lorenzo met the other night with representatives of non-government organizations (NGO) in Cancun to discuss reports that the US and the European Union have stepped up efforts to break up the united stand of developing countries on agriculture and other issues.

Rumors are also circulating that the Philippines is about to succumb to US pressure. The Philippines is a leading member of the Alliance For Strategic Products And Special Safeguard Measures that is pushing for special and differential treatment for developing countries.

The Philippines is also a member of Group of 21 — led by Brazil, India and China — that is demanding that developed countries lessen domestic support, substantially increase access of developing countries’ products into its markets, and eliminate export subsidies. Two more countries had recently joined the Group of 21, increasing its membership to 23.

Weak Link?

According to analysts, the Philippines is one of the "weak links" the US will be targeting to split up the negotiating coalitions formed by developing countries. Lorenzo, however, assured the NGO representatives that the Philippines will stand pat on its decision to band with other developing countries.

Arze Glipo of the Manila-based Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty, said that as the second day of the WTO meeting came to a close, little has changed as far the positions of developing countries are concerned.

"What has emerged so far are pledges from two blocs of developing countries to insist on their positions on the framework of modalities for the agriculture negotiations," Glipo said, referring to the Group of 21 and the Alliance.

The Group of 21 is also pushing for larger tariff cuts, elimination of special safeguards for developed countries, tariff rate quota expansion and a differentiated formula for developing countries.

The Alliance, led by the Philippines and Indonesia, is pushing for the inclusion of provisions allowing for strategic products and special safeguard measures in the WTO work program for agriculture.

The special safeguard mechanisms shall be used by developing countries as a mechanism to protect their domestic markets against cheap and subsidized imports. Products designated as strategic products shall also have access to the mechanism.

The Alliance is pushing for special and differential treatment for developing countries so the issues of "food and livelihood security and rural development" are taken into account.

"With or without pressure, the reforms demanded by the two blocs of developing countries are at best temporary remedies… For one, special products would remain (under tariff), subject to future negotiations and remains in the sphere of further liberalization," Glipo said.

He explained that the governments must pursue trade with other nations that is "mutually beneficial and one that respects the sovereignty and the right of poor countries to development and economic self-determination. Countries must assert, not negotiate, their inherent rights to define their own agriculture and trade policies and programs based on the real needs and interests of its people."

"Our government has three days to remedy this situation, and show that it is our interest that they have brought to the negotiations," Glipo said.

The second day of the WTO conference was marked by more than 100 people protesting outside the US consulate in Hong Kong, calling for the WTO to end its policies of liberalization and privatization of national economies, which they say have caused "massive unemployment" in third world countries.

The protesters, who were predominantly Nepalese, Filipinos and Indonesians, said the WTO had damaged third world economies by implementing policies that "only favored certain nations like the US."

Ramon Bultron, a spokesman for the group, said that while policies meant to improve the lives of the poor have been approved at previous WTO meetings, the results are often just the opposite.

"Take their policies on agriculture, which were supposed to improve the lives of poor farmers but have instead resulted in massive unemployment… we want these policies that just favor the US and rich nations to stop," he said.

Protesters shouted slogans, including "Junk WTO," "No to Liberalization," and "No to monopoly globalization" outside the US consulate before disbanding peacefully.

The protest came after a South Korean farmer stabbed himself in the chest during a demonstration Wednesday in Cancun, the site of the WTO meeting.

The farmer, who later died in a hospital, had apparently committed suicide to show his disgust for the WTO and its policies. — With AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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