MANILA, August 2 , 2004 (STAR) By Rocel C. Felix - Developing countries like the Philippines triumphed in the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) talks as rich nations approved a plan to end export subsidies on farm products and cut import duties across the world, a key step toward a comprehensive global accord that has been discussed since 2001.

The deal was approved by a consensus of the 147-nation body shortly after midnight last Sunday, opening the way for full negotiations to start in September.

The accord commits nations to lowering import duties and reducing government support in the three major areas of international trade – industrial goods, agriculture and service industries such as telecommunications and banking.

The deal will set back in motion the long-stalled "round" of trade liberalization treaty talks launched by WTO members in Doha, Qatar, in 2001 but delayed by the collapse of the body’s ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, last year.

WTO Director-General Supachi Panitchpakdi, who had mediated the negotiations since the collapse in Cancun was ecstatic.

"It is really a historic moment for this organization for we have proof again that when our members set their heads and minds together we can overcome all kinds of obstacles," he said.RP, poor… From B-1

Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr. hailed the recent development and called it a "first-round victory for the Filipino farmer."

"The developed countries also agreed to recognize the concept of special products for which developing countries would be able to calibrate the degree of market access that they could give to their economically-developed trading partners. This gives us the flexibility that we have been seeking since the talks started," Lorenzo said.

The rich economies of the US and European Union also consented to initially reduce tariff and export subsidies by at least 20 percent in the first year of the effectivity of the new agricultural trade order.

"There is now a greater chance of eliminating export subsidies and opening developed markets. These could improve our chances in the international markets. Also, the provisions on special products and special safeguard mechanisms increased our capacity to defend our strategic and sensitive sectors," Lorenzo explained.

The Philippines counts as sensitive products, commodities like rice and sugar.

The country has in fact, notified the WTO of its intention to maintain the quantitative restrictions on rice.

The highlights of the talks that ended on July 31 included the agreement on the modalities for the WTO talks on agriculture which resumes in September.

These include requiring lesser tariff reduction commitments or tariff quota expansion commitments from developing country members; allowing developing countries to have the flexibility to designate an appropriate number of products as special products that will be given preferential treatment and implementation of special safeguard mechanisms by developing country members.

Lorenzo said he expects next month’s negotiations to be protracted "but at least the direction has been set."

Lorenzo, who last year was a key figure in the creation of the Group of 33 composed of developing countries that pushed hard to maintain high tariffs on sensitive products of their respective agriculture sectors, urged the Group to continue efforts to put in effect a more level-playing field for poorer nations.

"We still have a long way to go and should never be complacent. The real negotiations have just began and vigilance is required," Lorenzo said.

All 141 member governments of the WTO approved a package of framework and other agreements which Panitchpakdi said will greatly enhance members’ chances of successfully completing the Doha negotiations.

Launched in 2001, the Doha Development Round trade talks collapsed 10 months ago in Cancun, Mexico as members failed to settle disputes on the agricultural subsidies with rich nations like the US and EU and Japan resisting calls by poor nations to open up their markets and scrap farm support that have disadvantaged their impoverished counterparts.

The Group of 33 however, stood their ground which led to the historic breakthrough last month. 

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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