"Don't worry about me, just struggle your hardest." These were the last words spoken by Kyung Hae Lee to his fellow Korean farmers before he stabbed his heart with a knife after he climbed the steel barricades that separated civil society from the official World Trade Organization ministerial in Cancun, Mexico.
Kyung Hae Lee was a 56-year-old rice farmer from South Korea. He was among 14,000 farmers and indigenous people from around the world who came to protest the dead end they face under the WTO. Lee, who sacrificed his life thousands of miles away from his family and homeland, underscores the urgent plight he and small family farmers around the world face under the current negotiations on agriculture.
Although his suicide was dramatic, the despair that led Kyung Hae Lee to commit this tragic act is not entirely uncommon among the world's small family farmers.
Between 1998-1999, over 1000 farmers in India committed suicide. Three hundred of them killed themselves by swallowing the very same costly pesticides that they had gone into debt to purchase. According to Sawai Singh of Samagra Swea Sangh, an NGO based in India, "Farmers have been pushed to ruin ever since liberalization was initiated."
But suicide is not limited to farmers in developing countries. In Britain and Canada, farmers commit suicide at double the rate of the general population. In Wales alone, the suicide rate for farmers averages one per day. American farmers-a population whose numbers are so low that they are no longer counted by the Census-are five times as likely to commit suicide than to die from farm accidents. According to Brian Halweil of World Watch, "The true number may be even higher, as suicide hotlines report that they often receive calls from farmers who want to know which sorts of accidents are least likely to be investigated by insurance companies that don't pay claims for suicides."
The Centre for Suicide Prevention reports that the leading causes of stress and suicide among farmers are growing expenses and low commodity prices. How does this relate to the WTO?
The WTO's Agreement on Agriculture would force countries to stop supporting their farmers and open their economies to competition from the north's heavily subsidized corporate agribusinesses. The United States and the European Union spend $1 billion a day to subsidize their corporate agribusinesses, enabling them to sell their commodities at below the cost of production.
This is the unlevel playing field that farmers in developing countries are being forced into. Ninety percent of agriculture production in developing countries goes to feed their own people. Family farmers know that these global trade agreements will kill them. According to a fellow Korean, Lee knew "that if the [trade] negotiations go through, it will be the death of the Korean farmer."
Lee's death symbolically fell on Chusok, the most important Korean national holiday where family and friends gather to give thanks to their ancestry and for the food that
sustains life. As family farmers are forced off the land and stripped of their livelihoods and dignity, they are left with shame and despair from losing the ability to protect the heritage of their ancestors. Lee's death has signaled to the world that he was willing to sacrifice his own life instead of silently suffocating under the harsh rules of the WTO.
Christine Ahn is coordinator for the social and economics human rights program at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy