SCC Trade & Environment

Letter from Cancun
Sarah Dover, Sierra Club of Canada

“Can’t buy me love”
What Cancun must be remembered for

15 September 2003

Jubilation. Jubilation is rippling out through the streets in Cancun and across the electronic networks as news of the WTO humbling spreads. We celebrate the courage of those countries who had the most to lose and that stood the tallest in the face of enormous pressure. This is a victory against the WTO process - not as passive as it sounds - the process makes the thuggery possible and the shocking threats and intimidation have been a necessary element in the making of international trade law.

One: a coalition called “G plus” countries formed around agricultural issues (the feature presentation here) which hardened when the US and the EU came prepared to give almost nothing. Two: a knitted together group of countries, mostly African, stopped asking to be asked on “Singapore issues” - they refused to sit back down and be bullied into submission. Three: the two groups linked arms because the only movement possible in Cancun was down - it was lose-lose scenario when the two issues were seen together. And down it came after days of lightning, thundering and dark grey massing. Jubilation and relief.

The long branch on which these talks were perched was swaying and creaking even before the draft final text was released. The nexus of discord was the possibility that developing countries would be forced into trade talks on 4 topic areas (the “Singapore issues”), including investment. The facilitation of this group was provided by our very own Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, who was grating developing nations against the possibility that the ultimate decision may be made in such a way as to force the conclusion down the gullet of a large coalition of countries already saying ‘no - let’s get agriculture fixed and figure the rest out after.’ He was warned, early in the conference; people were saying “take a breath on investment”, “don’t gamble with investment because you’ll lose agriculture.” The response back? Minimizing, dismissing and preparations to force a resolution - ‘they do not pose a political problem.’ Wrong. I guess no means no after all.

The WTO is under constant renegotiations; it is institutionally defined as constantly expanding through greater and greater trade liberalization. Gone are the days when trade talks were dominated by the apparent trade barriers such as import and export tariffs and administrative customs fees. Since moving off the loading dock, trade rules and trade talks have found new frontiers in areas such as agriculture, services and investment. This is why victory in Cancun means the rise of developing countries power within the living WTO and a pause in the expansion of WTO controls into some new areas - and NOT a collapse of the multilateral trading regime.

But the WTO Goliath has suffered a stunning blow at the hand of the David countries.  ’What now’ is called, in Cancun parlance, “back to Geneva.” “Back to Geneva” means “we’ll talk about this when we get home.” The countries that were leaders, catalysts, pillars will now be targeted for diplomatic assassination in the context of their coalitions. Punch and rub diplomacy will be aimed equally at nations with life support systems plugged into northern nations: the exclusive 0 tariff relationship that Africa has with the EU (well, actually the reality of this is not as lip licking as this sounds) and foreign aid. Also, the rise in unilateralism (“what’s good for me is good for the world”) means that single countries are being picked off in one-on-one, bilateral, free trade agreements with precedent setting concessions. These bilaterals are provide a setting free of pesky politics-of-scale coalitions.

Coming out of Cancun for activists means a return to the constant pressure constantly applied, but with the resolve that we won in Seattle, we won in Cancun and we will win again. The international trading system will continue to be frustrated so long as it fails to meet the needs of the majority of its members and so long as it is incapable of internalizing the human and environmental costs that now characterize it.

More needs to be told…about the amazing actions inside and outside, about the state of policing at Cancun, about the state of the environment in these negotiations, about the natural intrusions in this experience (like the hermit crab that passed me by as I watched a huge contingent of the agriculture lobby meet with Canada’s lead trade negotiator). More will come…stay tuned, send me questions if you have them.

Many, many, many thanks to every activist that has raised their voice heading in Cancun - the actions across the world resonated loudly here.

For background information and links to breaking news, visit SCC's trade and environment page;

Sierra Club of Canada