For years, farmers have said free trade policies have harmed them. Will the world finally start listening?
Sixteen years ago this week, Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farmer, scaled a fence in Cancún, Mexico, and stabbed himself to death with a penknife while wearing a sign that read “WTO kills farmers.” Lee was outside a ministerial meeting for the World Trade Organization, or WTO. Comprised of 164 member nations, the WTO sets the rules for 98 percent of global trade, and on that particular day in September 2003, thousands of farmers from all over the world had gathered to protest free trade policies they said robbed them of their livelihoods by privileging multinational businesses at their expense. “I am taking my life so that others can live,” read a note on Lee’s person at the time of his death.
Lee’s tragic story still resonates with farmers and activists around the globe, as evidenced by shrines in his honor that often appear at protests. “He is a very potent symbol of what they are fighting for,” said Timothy A. Wise, author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, who was at the Cancún protests. “Those were the relatively early days of globalization and the fight at the WTO was about whether developing countries were going to get a say in what the globalization process looked like.”
Sixteen years after Lee’s self-immolation, political and economic upheaval throughout the globe has reinvigorated debates over who really benefits from free trade agreements. Farmers are still suffering much as they were in Lee’s time, and for the same reasons: free trade agreements continue to decimate local food markets, accelerate environmental degradation, displace entire communities, and strip farmers of their livelihoods.
In the U.S., the gospel of free trade has been a tenet of the “neoliberal consensus” that has guided foreign policy for the better part of three decades.The basic idea is that by removing barriers to exports and imports, consumers will have more access to a wide variety of goods and businesses that rely on imports or supply chains that stretch across borders will be able to reduce their costs. With some exceptions, the dogma of free trade has been faithfully adhered to by both Democrats and Republicans, and dutifully championed by policy wonks and media elites.
But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and amid growing economic uncertainty worldwide, some are challenging the core assumptions about the benefits of globalization via free trade. The removal of trade barriers may have made consumer goods cheaper, but it also pitted manufacturing firms against foreign factories that paid much less for labor, leading to job losses for many American workers. Farmers around the world have faced a similar problem, as a sudden influx of cheap foreign-grown products from huge agribusiness firms have undercut local producers and forced them into desperate circumstances.
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