In 1993, the resort city of Cancún, Mexico, fell prey to what has become one of the hottest trends in global capitalism: privatization. After years of failing to provide an adequate clean water supply for the city's burgeoning population, Cancún's city fathers hired a subsidiary of Enron to manage the city's water system. Untold problems and millions of pesos later, the city saw no choice but to take back control of its water system.
Cancún's story will likely be told regularly in September, when the city hosts the fifth ministerial gathering of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Founded in 1995 to set trade rules and settle disputes among its 146 member countries, the WTO has been a target of global justice activists from the start, including the historic "Battle for Seattle" in 1999. After 9/11, protests against corporate globalization all but died, but many activists hope the Cancún meeting will be the movement's chance to get back on track. In an ironic twist, some globalization critics may end up fighting to save the WTO.
Delegates in Cancún will discuss a new General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), reports Paul Kingsnorth in The Ecologist (June 2003). The treaty would expand the WTO rules to pressure local and national governments to privatize public services such as water, energy, transportation, education, and public safety. Just imagine, Kingsnorth muses: "KFC school dinners?" Even the venerable British Broadcasting Company "could be up for grabs."
Also on the table are discussions on health care, intellectual property rights, and agricultural dumping, notes Mark Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), which advocates for small family farmers worldwide. "The WTO won't enforce existing rules on dumping," Ritchie explains. So U.S. companies are flooding poor countries with agricultural products at half the cost of production, pushing local farmers out of their own markets. At the same time, he adds, the wealthy countries want to remove provisions that foster development in poorer lands. At the last WTO ministerial meeting in 2001 at Doha, Qatar, countries in a public health crisis were given the right to sidestep pharmaceutical patents and dispense life-saving drugs. In a disturbing development, some now want to strike these measures, Ritchie says.
Delegates will also discuss a new agreement on investor rights being pushed by the European Union. Under this measure, corporations could sue governments for the loss of potential profits due to local environmental and worker-protection laws-a major disincentive to pass such legislation.
But it's not so much what's on the agenda in Cancún that's important; it's how the talks are conducted, says Ritchie. Though the WTO's 146 members officially make decisions by consensus, unofficially, the deck is stacked against the poor countries. Except for the opening and closing sessions, the actual discussions are all closed-door affairs. At the 2001 meeting in Qatar, delegates from many poor countries had to wait in the halls or in hotel rooms while the real powers negotiated in private.
Though Ritchie and other WTO critics have long argued for reforms in the organization, they now find themselves in the surprising position of defending the organization from attacks by the Bush administration, which has been skirting the WTO by pressuring some nations into individual trade deals containing even harsher terms than the WTO demands.
"The only thing worse than a world with the wrong international trade rules is a world with no trade rules at all," writes George Monbiot, a social justice activist and columnist for The Guardian in London. After years of calling for elimination of the WTO, Monbiot now says we should keep it, but transform it into what he calls a "fair trade organization." Monbiot details his plan in a new book, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order (Flamingo), explaining that any company that wants to trade internationally would have to abide by rules including bans on slave labor, certain pesticides, and workplace exposure to hazardous substances. This model is already well established among certified fair trade producers all over the world. Many of them (and their products) will be on display in Cancún at the first-ever International Fair Trade Fair and Sustainable Trade Symposium sponsored by activist groups. And while fair trade won't be on the WTO's official agenda, it may become the gathering's most significant debate by showing there is an alternative to exploitive corporate globalization.
Leif Utne is managing editor of Utne.com. For more details on the Cancún meetings and other global trade issues, go to www.utne.com/cancun.