WASHINGTON -- When Lee Kyang Hae scaled a metal security fence and plunged a knife into his heart on the first day of the Fifth Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Cancun, Mexico, Wednesday, he was trying to speak for tens of millions of small farmers around the world who find themselves at the losing edge of economic globalization.
Lee, a small farmer who had also served in South Korea's legislature, died at a Cancun hospital shortly afterwards, casting a pall over the proceedings for which trade ministers and delegations from more than 140 countries have gathered this week.
Their work may decide the future of agricultural subsidies which many countries, particularly wealthier ones--including South Korea--use to protect domestic farm production against foreign competition.
South Korean anti-globalization activists pay homage in Cancun, to fellow countryman Lee Kyang Hae on the spot where he committed suicide during a demonstration against the fifth World Trade Organization ministerial conference. (AFP/Ali Burafi)
Just before his suicide, Lee, who staged a one-man hunger strike at WTO headquarters in Geneva earlier this year, distributed a statement to reporters and some of the 15,000 small farmers from dozens of countries who were marching to protest the meeting and the likelihood that decisions taken there may prove ruinous to their livelihoods and way of life.
"My warning goes out to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation. That uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO Members are leading an undesirable globalization that is inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing, and undemocratic. It should be stopped immediately."
Lee's lament goes to the heart of what is perhaps the single most contentious issue in international trade today.
Free-market advocates argue that agricultural producers who can grow crops most efficiently--that is, at the lowest cost--should be permitted to export to other markets without tariffs or other trade-distorting barriers, such as farm subsidies in the importing country, in order to keep global food prices low and as affordable to as many people as possible.
Instead of trying to compete with low-cost producers, according to this view, farmers in other countries who produce the same crop at higher cost should either grow something else at which they will have a similar competitive advantage or give up farming altogether and move to the city where they can get a job in a manufacturing or some other
sector whose products or services can be sold to yet other markets at competitive prices.
This "neo-liberal" philosophy, which guides the WTO and other institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that oversee the global economy, is precisely what brought Lee to Cancun and ultimately to his death.
Due to a succession of global trade agreements, the South Korean government was required to take measures that would reduce its ability to insulate its rice farmers, whose production costs have long been quite high by global standards, from the global market. With government protections reduced, the price of rice ceased to be competitive with foreign producers, and even less so as Korean rice farmers recorded five straight years of bumper crops, which further reduced prices.
"Since (massive importing of rice), we small farmers have never been paid over our production costs," Lee wrote. "What would be your emotional reaction if your salary dropped to a half without understanding the reason?"
"Farmers who gave up early have gone to urban slums. Others who have tried to escape from the vicious cycle have met bankruptcy due to accumulated debts," he continued. "For me, I couldn't do anything but just look around at the vacant houses, old and eroding. Once I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife. If you were me, how would you feel?" asked Lee, a former president of the Korean National Future Farmers' and Fishermen's Association.
The plight of small farmers described by Lee is by no means confined to South Korea.
Despite their professed devotion to free-trade principles, major economic powers--particularly the European Union (EU) and the United States--have used their influence in the WTO to retain the ability to subsidize their agricultural producers, which they continue to do at the rate of some US$300 billion a year.
These subsidies have enabled the EU and the U.S., in particular, to flood much of the rest of the world with their food exports at prices that are far below the actual costs of production, making it even more difficult for small farmers in poorer countries, including South Korea--which has become the highest per capita consumer of U.S. farm products in the world--to compete.
Similarly, since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which required Mexico to lower tariffs on a range of agricultural goods, corn imports from the U.S. have increased 20-fold, threatening, and, in some cases, destroying, the livelihoods of millions of small farmers, many of whom have migrated to the U.S. in search of work, since work is harder to find in Mexico itself.
Thus it was no surprise that most of the small farmers who marched with Lee Wednesday were from maize-producing regions in Mexico. ''I believe that farmers' situation in many other developing countries is similar," his statement said. "We have in common the problem of dumping, import surges, lack of government budgets (support), and too many people."
In a message to indigenous peoples gathered to protest in Cancun, the leader of Mexico's peasant-based Zapatista Front agreed, saying: "The products we sell are not given a fair price, while their products' prices go up all the time. Everything the poor buy is more and more expensive, and only a few people benefit and live better, while millions of poor men and women and children die of hunger and sickness."
Indian activist Vandana Shiva told the marchers that 650 farmers committed suicide in just one month.
The protests, sombered by Lee's death, will continue through the end of the WTO meeting Sunday.
"General elections could be envisaged as soon as possible, between now and spring 2004," he added.
Copyright 2003 OneWorld.net