SCC Trade & Environment

Letter from Cancun
Sarah Dover, Sierra Club of Canada

September 10, 2003: Opening Day of the WTO in Cancun

Here I am again - staring down a row of riot police. We are at the security perimeter at the mouth of the single road leading into the plush hotel zone of Cancun and in toward the Convention Center where the Opening Day of the 5th Ministerial of the WTO is underway.

The sun sets here with indescribable splendor - whipped columns of clouds dusted with grenadine light. Our first witness was last night; we watched from the manicured grounds of the hotel that was hosting the official Canadian reception. This is “inside”: industry lobbyists, NGOs and government officials mingle easily with members of the Canadian delegation. Someone speculates about how the EU will “get paid” for possible concessions on the logjam issue - agriculture. Environmental issues (like the relationship between international environmental law and trade law) are offered up like poker chips with unknown value. The dreamy light also sets ablaze several naval frigates of the “you sank my battleship” variety and several members of our youth coalition set off to feast on ornamental birds made out of pineapple.

The morning starts early with as many as 45 people heading into the security tight Opening Ceremonies equipped with a plan to protest during the speech of the head of the WTO. The audience quiets and all the world opens up to hear what will be done in Cancun about this one simple fact - the WTO is in crisis. The divide between rich and poor nations may be hopelessly wide and even the most optimistic blue suited pundits are giving the chance of resolution only 50/50. People rise up out of their seats with signs in many languages and duct tape over their mouths. Twenty minutes pass and they move to approach the stage, people begin to yell - their heckles put edgy words to what most people here grudgingly know - the WTO process is deeply flawed.

Word circulates that the Mexican Organizing Committee is gravely disappointed by the days events. The NGO liaison paced the corridor behind the riot police and palm trees. The “visual” at the Opening Ceremonies was lost to international NGOs who protested inside the actual room and then, once escorted out, chanted and protested to the delight of the world’s media. The next brochure shot of the new Cancun was a massive march of farmers that moved through the streets of Cancun until stopped here at the perimeter of the hotel zone.

Rodolfo Montier and Teodoro Caniera are campesinos from Mexico. From them, I learn about how NAFTA has unleashed privatisation of agricultural lands, fortified governmental corruption and changed environmental laws. Rudolfo says “we the campesinos are not willing to let the lands, waters and forest be privitized.” In their struggle, they have spent 15 years in jail between them. To Amnesty International, they were declared prisoners of conscience. Neither of them have ever had a day of formal schooling.

At a Forest Forum we are faces from all over the world and we are talking about all the great forests. The words are translated but they are the same - the story of unsustainable extraction, transnational companies, weak or complicit governments and trade agreements. I talk about the boreal - the great circimboreal that streaks around the globe forming a massive lung for greenhouse gasses. The forests are on the table here, for example, the ability of countries to label forest products that have been harvested sustainablly is at stake here.

The day is tiring and the light is getting dull. We walk through a park on our way back to the secure perimeter and I am reminded of all the campesino faces here earlier in the day. I remember a woman breast feeding and our nodding at one another, across cultures, languages and geography, “Ole”. We meet a television crew at the breath of the front gates and agree that they will film us trying to get through the five rows of riot police. Face to face with police shields, I feel fear and anger move under me. I feel like I’m trying to get up on one water-ski, in a moment I will be either be flying or pounding into water. There is some shouting and jostling but the way parts and we pass through.

The first day closes with a heavy sigh - someone has died at the barricade. A Korean, mid-fifties, a labour leader, has taken his own life in protest. The gravity of this act and the life and death reality of this struggle hits us all hard. Police replace the huge, now mal-formed fencing, as candles are lit and friends sit vigil.

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