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Towards a "Plan Cancun"… Key WTO Issues for Mexico

Victor Menotti
Posted 04/16/2003

The World Trade Organization's (WTO) 2003 Cancun Ministerial could advance a number of agenda items launched by the 2001 Doha Round of trade negotiations. To inspire a successful people's mobilization around Cancun, there is a need to link the WTO agenda to popular movements who are within "striking distance" of Cancun. The purpose of this brief is to draw links between WTO campaigners and Mexican organizers who can collaborate on strategic issues that both elevate local struggles and impact WTO decisions. Call it some initial steps toward an eventual "Plan Cancun." Below is an initial attempt to identify current popular movements in the region and key WTO agenda items which may impact them.


Mexico's farming communities need no introduction to the problems of free trade thanks to the experience of NAFTA. The liberalization of corn and grain markets was supposed to be phased in gradually over fifteen years, but instead its implementation was accelerated within eighteen months. Mexico's national system of import tariffs and quotas were repealed while state assistance for farming equipment, seeds, and marketing were reduced. Constitutional rights for communal land were changed to accommodate foreign investors. Mexico's biggest rural employment program was being dismantled, displacing countless family farmers. But what is in WTO that Mexico's small farmers should care about?

WTO's prohibition of Quantitative Restrictions (QRs) allows artificially cheap commodities to enter domestic markets and destroy farmer's livelihoods and incomes. Farmers across the world are demanding a restoration of QRs. Vandana Shiva has called it "the real issue" for Cancun, noting that prioritizing the re-introduction of QRs would reduce WTO's powers, as opposed to focusing on market access and subsidies, which would expand WTO powers. WTO's current review of anti-dumping rules that determine what measures governments can take to counter unfair imports should heed the demands of Mexican farmers who are mobilizing for Cancun.


Lead by indigenous communities, southeast Mexico and Central America have a growing grassroots movement to fight President Fox's proposed "Plan Puebla Panama (PPP)." PPP is cast as a regional development initiative that would create a protected biological corridor from Puebla, Mexico to Panama, offering the region's legendary genetic diversity to bioprospectors who would in turn patent and market "new" foods and medicines. Hydroelectric dams (to power new maquiladoras), an intermodal-transport system (to compete with the Panama Canal for international trade traffic), as well as expanded timber, mineral and petroleum extraction, would complement major inward investments toward exploiting genetic resources.

WTO is the global mechanism that makes the privatization of biodiversity not only highly profitable, but also legally possible. Without WTO's Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property (or TRIPs), the corporations that "privatize life" by patenting genetic resources would have no legal tool to enforce global monopoly rights over the use of biological diversity.

In Doha, governments mandated WTO to review TRIPs' relationship to the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) because TRIPs conflicts with the biodiversity and traditional knowledge rights that indigenous peoples fought to establish in CBD. A coalition of "mega-biodiversity" nations, including Mexico, want TRIPs to defer to CBD. TRIP's legitimacy is also under attack by powerful developing nations like Brazil and South Africa because it denies access to the essential medicines needed to treat AIDS and other diseases. Cancun will be the site of an open fight over whose rights will prevail: global corporations who want to own biodiversity or indigenous communities who say, "No patents on life!" People resisting PPP and patents on life should be heard. By elevating the voices of communities that PPP will directly impact, and targeting the WTO rules that make PPP possible, Cancun can be used to "kill two birds with one stone."


The discovery of genetically modified corn in 2001 in the southern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, the origins of the maize genome, has alarmed many Mexicans and heightened their sense of outrage about unregulated grain imports from the US. Many consider it a violation of Mexico's cultural identity. The Mexican Government has banned the planting of GE crops since 1998 in an attempt to protect the genetic integrity of its indigenous maize. But efforts to isolate, separate, and regulate GMO corn in Mexico must conform to WTO's strict but unclear rules under the Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) Agreement. Mexican voices calling for the control of GMOs must be heard in the WTO debate, targeting the SPS agreement's contradictions with the UN's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which declares that nations have the right to regulate GMOs. Advocates of controlling GMO corn could become a key force in another WTO mandate from Doha: clarifying the relationship between WTO rules (which prohibit restrictions on trade) and the trade measures that enforce the UN's Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). UN protections for biodivesity, food security, and indigenous culture must supercede the rights of transgenic seed corporations under WTO.


Southern Mexico is a microcosm of the struggle between free trade forestry and the emerging alternative: ecologically sustainable, community-based forestry. What WTO decides in Cancun could determine the future of forests in Mexico and worldwide.

Eco-labeling: Boasting one of the world's highest concentrations of certified-sustainable producers, forest communities in southern Mexico have invested much time, money, and energy to earn the world-renowned eco-label of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is based in the state of Oaxaca. But WTO is now examining how eco-labels impact trade, with a decision to be taken in Cancun as to whether or not to develop market access rules that would restrict or even prohibit the use of eco-labels. If WTO usurps authority over eco-labels, it would determine the fate of many communities who have made hard sacrifices to earn certification as sustainable forest producers.

Investment: Oaxaca is also where 26 campesinos were recently assassinated while returning from a logging operation. While the motives behind it are still unclear, what is clear is that new foreign investment rules have increased industrial logging in Mexico's biologically rich forests and gross human rights violation in Mexico's forest communities. As guinea pig for US-designed investment rules under NAFTA (which are now being proposed for all nations via WTO), Mexico saw fifteen US logging firms arrive within eighteen months. . People opposing the problem are being tortured and killed. Foreign investors often pay higher prices for logs (made possible by NAFTA investment rules), creating volatile tensions between the few people who gain from unregulated logging and nearby campesinos and indigenous peoples' whose adjacent forests, water, farms, and communities are being destroyed. Such was the case of campesino-ecologist Rodolfo Montiel Flores, who was imprisoned and tortured for leading peaceful community resistance against US logging giant Boise Cascade's operations in Guerrero.

Forest communities are desperate for inward investment, but without enforceable rules to guide it, intensified resource extraction only destroys the environment and deepens poverty. Cancun is an opportunity to raise the voices of Mexico's forest communities who are suffering the impacts of liberalized foreign investment in free logging, both to elevate their struggles and warn the world not to let WTO adopt the same rules.


The region around Cancun has become a postcard for "industrial tourism." Over 80% of the foreign investment in Cancun's tourism industry comes from either Europe or the US, either of which is only a few hours away by plane. Increasing numbers of people from Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula are concerned that the "gains" form tourism are being extracted by foreign tourism corporations and not being retained to raise standards of living in the community. A new Green Party mayor was recently elected in Cancun in part on a platform of regulating an out-of-control tourism industry.

WTO's negotiations to liberalize the trade in "Tourism Services" under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) could curtail Cancun's municipal government's efforts to regulate tourism. The US proposal lists a number of "obstacles" to free trade in tourism services, targeting the very policies many governments use to ensure that local communities retain some benefit from tourism. Beyond the municipal government's policy agenda, the loss of control may also impact city's hotel and restaurant employees who embody the tourism industry. Tourism issues have the potential to unify local resistance to industrial tourism in strategic cities across the globe, as well as many rural areas that tourism threatens.


NAFTA failed to open up Mexico's state-owned oil company (PEMEX), but "energy services" negotiations under GATS is a strategic initiative by the Bush/Cheney White House to reduce dependence on oil from the Mideast by increasing access to and control over energy supplies via the break-up of state-owned oil and gas enterprises. Privatizations of PEMEX and electricity delivery services are highly controversial issues, and a global trade summit advancing the privatization of "energy services" could attract much attention. Connecting GATS to Mexico's energy debate and its key constituencies can raise the profile of the WTO Ministerial as well as elevate domestic voices on the global stage. Southern Mexico's rich petroleum resources are also at stake, as energy services liberalization would allow US companies to access more exploration and drilling opportunities in the region. There is currently no organized effort to monitor or influence WTO negotiations on Energy Services. A recent report by Daniel Yergin (author of the authoritative history of the oil industry, The Prize) Cambridge Energy Research Associates on "The WTO Doha Trade Agenda: A Primer for the Energy Industry" should be taken note of as an identification of opportunities by industry strategists.


As is nearly all of Latin America, Mexican civil society's organizing energy has catalyzed around stopping the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). But, as the United States Trade Representative Robert Zolleick explained at the recent FTAA Ministerial in Quito, the finalization of FTAA depends on what happens in agriculture in WTO. Without dissipating the organizing energy, Mexican groups and WTO campaigners need to build on the popular momentum created by fighting FTAA, keeping in mind its strategic relationship to WTO.

These are only a few of many more connections that must be established and strengthened between WTO campaigners and Mexican organizers and social movements to really impact the Cancun Ministerial.

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