National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 19, 2003

Catholics groups lobby global trade ministers

Catholic News Service

Vicente Ramirez’s family has been farming corn in a picturesque village in the heart of rural Mexico for centuries. But with corn prices slumping to 28 cents a pound, Ramirez is afraid he will have to leave the home he loves and look for work elsewhere.

“With these prices we can’t even make enough money to feed ourselves,” said Ramirez, who is active in the local corn growers’ cooperative. Ramirez said local growers cannot compete against cheap corn imported from the United States -- where farmers are subsidized to the tune of $19 billion a year.

A thousand miles away in Mexico’s resort town of Cancún, trade ministers from 146 countries were discussing the situation of farmers like Ramirez who are struggling in the globalized economy. Agriculture was at the top of the agenda of the World Trade Organization’s fifth ministerial conference Sept. 10-14.

Catholic groups and church officials went to the meeting to try to persuade policymakers to support fair trade and sustainable development.

“We have to represent the voice of the poor,” said Bishop Luc Cyr of Valleyfield, Quebec, who was heading a delegation from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Msgr. Frank Dewane, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said representatives from the Vatican would look at the issues of tariff reductions, subsidies and dumping -- the practice of selling excess produce in foreign markets at rock-bottom prices.

Fifteen developing nations -- including Mexico, Brazil, India and China -- were backing a proposal that ministers agree to an eventual elimination of all farming subsidies. The proposal was recently called “a space odyssey” by European Union Farming Commissioner Franz Fischler, who said the countries sponsoring it should “come back to earth.”

However, Dewane said he was optimistic the meeting could produce some positive results. “The European Union and United States may have begun with a hard bargaining position, but we hope they will become more flexible,” he said.

As well as talking with government ministers, church officials were meeting and exchanging ideas with some of the 980 nongovernmental organizations registered at the conference.

“The NGOs have the potential to contribute in a positive way and make sure the most pressing issues are on the agenda,” Dewane said.

Also visiting the resort of Cancún were thousands of protesters intent on shutting down the conference. Four years ago in Seattle, protesters clashed with police and helped derail talks at the World Trade Organization’s third ministerial conference.

Church officials said they are firmly against violence and hope there would be no confrontations.

“Violence only leads to more violence. We need dialogue,” said Fr. Jose Antonio Sandoval, executive secretary of the social affairs commission of the Mexican bishops’ conference.

“We trust that the ministers at the meeting will show concern for human beings and not just the market,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003

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