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Dismantling the Free Trade Regime

November 2013

In January 1994, the Zapatistas – autonomous indigenous communities who organized themselves in a system of liberated zones within Chiapas, Mexico – emerged out of the jungles with a clear and unified voice in opposition to the system of neoliberalism being imposed upon their lives through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  A trade deal between Canada, the US, and Mexico, NAFTA instituted a set of regulations that made it easier for transnational corporations to make profits across borders, no matter what the costs or consequences to people and the environment.  As a result, thousands of workers in the US lost their jobs as companies moved their operations to Mexico where the costs of production were cheaper. Millions of Mexican peasant farmers and indigenous peoples lost their livelihoods, as they could not compete with the low prices of subsidized agricultural commodities from US corporations that flooded Mexican markets. Prices that Mexican farmers receive today for maize (corn), their main crop, are 75 percent less than they were 25 years ago, before NAFTA was passed. As a result, many of these peasants and indigenous peoples found themselves forced to either work in factories (maquilas), or to migrate north to the US to try to find work, in both cases often under extremely exploitative conditions. And Mexican consumers are no better off – because US corporations like Cargill have set up special relations with large Mexican companies, they have established a monopoly that drives up prices to consumers, even as prices paid to farmers have drastically fallen.

The Blueprint for Globalized Free Trade – NAFTA to the WTO and Beyond

Since then, the neoliberal corporate free trade regime has moved forward, creating new agreements and regulations building on the NAFTA model. In 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was founded, completing the triumvirate of International Financial Institutions (along with the already existing International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). In some ways, the WTO may be the most powerful of the three (also known as the Bretton Woods Institutions). While the IMF and World Bank do a great deal of damage to Global South economies under the guise of “development,” the WTO is explicit about its role in protecting the profits of transnational corporations, above all other considerations – including national sovereignty.

Social movements from a variety of sectors understood early on how the WTO’s corporate agenda posed a dangerous threat to their constituencies – including labor, environmental groups, and small-scale farmers around the world. Thanks to the efforts of these and other movements, such as the organizing that happened at the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999 and  Cancun in 2003, and other spaces, movements have been successful in preventing the WTO from deepening its hold even further through the attempted but stalled Doha round of negotiations.

However, governments influenced by transnational corporations have found ways to work around this obstacle, pushing forward an increasing number of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passed in 2006 borrowed a great deal from the NAFTA blueprint. In recent years, it has been used by transnational companies such as the Canadian-based Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, to sue the El Salvadoran government for millions of dollars in profits that it claims it lost the ability to make from gold mining, after the government passed an executive order to place a moratorium on metallic mining. In the eyes of CAFTA and the WTO, the fact that the government passed this regulation as a result of community struggles to protect their water, whose contamination from gold mining was causing a great amount of sickness and death among local communities, is irrelevant.  

Two trade deals currently being negotiated between the US and other countries are the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). The TPP has been called NAFTA on steroids.  It is currently being negotiated by 12 countries, and covers 40 percent of the global economy, with options for other countries to become signatories in the future.  Negotiations are highly secretive, with members of Congress not even being able to access drafts of the agreement, even though several corporate actors have not only been able to read but also influence the draft text.  TAFTA is no better – it stands to put many important worker and environmental protections (including recent European regulations against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) at great risk, in the name of corporate profit.  

Which Way Forward for Social Movements? Resisting the False Solutions of the Green Economy, and Lessons from the Global South

This month, a group of 20 international social movements put out a statement linking the issues of free trade and climate change.  Organizations such as La Vía Campesina, Focus on the Global South, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, among others, identified the particular ways that the free trade regime is being used to advance corporate profit in the face of climate change, otherwise known as the so-called “green economy.”  Governments and corporations around the world came together during the United Nations’ “Rio+20” meetings in 2012, commemorating 20 years since the original Rio Earth Summit, to promote the concept of the “green Eeconomy” – a smokescreen allowing corporations, often those who are most responsible for the causes of climate change, to profit from climate change by privatizing and commodifying land, water, forests, air, and other aspects of nature.  

In fact, Obama’s “Climate Action Plan”, released earlier this year, includes a clear statement of his intentions to advance this plan through the WTO: “The US will work with trading partners to launch negotiations at the World Trade Organization toward global free trade in environmental goods…we will also work in the Trade in Services Agreement negotiations toward achieving free trade in environmental services.”  

The social movements that crafted the collective statement reference above around the WTO and Climate Change understand that these efforts to put nature into a free trade regime are extremely dangerous false solutions to climate change, and need to be stopped.  The statement reads:

To address the climate emergency we need to not only stop the expansion of the WTO and FTAs but we need to go beyond that and call for an end to the WTO itself and the free trade regime.  There is no more time for half-measures.  If we are to save nature and humanity, we need to change the system and changing the system means dismantling the free trade regime…Human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights and the rights of Mother Earth have to be above trade rules if we want to preserve life as we know it.

Indeed, the stakes are high. Our ability to effectively resist and bring an end to free trade systems is critical, not only for the jobs, livelihoods, and environmental protections that are on the line.  It is literally our collective survival that is at stake, as humanity along with other living beings on this planet.  

In the short term, the twenty social movement groups who authored the statement – which collectively represent literally hundreds of millions of people in countries in almost every continent around the world – have put forward a call to action to unite movements around fair trade and climate justice around the world around the upcoming WTO Ministerial Meeting, to take place in Bali in December 2013. Through a combination of mobilizations in Bali and around the world, the voices and actions together have great promise to raise the profile of these issues, and hopefully to prevent the corporate green economy agenda from advancing even further.

Over the longer term, it will take a great variety of actions and creative resistance to achieve the goal of a fundamentally different social and economic system, based on respect for people and life on this planet over profit.  In thirty years of working with social movements from the Global South, many of the partners of Grassroots International – a Boston-based ally of Resist with long-standing relationships with movement building groups around the world – have important lessons to share.

For example, the Zapatistas, one of the earliest groups in organized resistance to free trade, have provided one of the most inspiring examples of resistance to global capitalism ever since their original uprising.  Their model is based on the wisdom of the most impacted communities being at the center of their work, exercising discipline in developing collective leadership and deep democracy, and putting their indigenous vision for “living well” into practice by building their own communities based entirely upon what they need at the local level, even as they courageously oppose what is wrong with the global economic system.  

Other groups such as La Vía Campesina – an international network of family farmers, peasants, fisherpeople, and other small-scale food producers – teach us important lessons about the importance and strength of global solidarity.  Uniting over 250 million members from 70 countries around the world under the banner of food sovereignty as resistance to global capitalism, La Vía Campesina’s slogan makes the meaning of their struggle clear within both hearts and minds: “Globalize the Struggle, Globalize Hope!” Both of these examples – and countless more – illustrate the importance of deep connection to place, to land and territory, to Mother Earth, and to one another, as critical components of what will make it ultimately possible to reach a vision of a society structured around global justice.  We look forward to continuing to walk this path together, along with Resist and so many of your inspiring grantees.

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