The peasants beyond the walls

September 15, 2003 / New Statesman

Observations on Cancun

In 1970, a computer chose Cancun – then a quiet fishing village – as the site for casino, sun, sex and resort-style tourist development. Now it is the location of the World Trade Organisation’s fifth ministerial meeting. The convention centre, blocked off by steel barricades and armed vehicles, is at the tip of an inaccessible causeway lined with strip malls, sex clubs and giant five-star faux-Mayan-temple hotels, which tower over the real, ragged descendants of the Maya who sleep on the roadside at night. It is a non-place, a place where everybody comes from somewhere else.

On the other, earthier side of town, peasant farmers and indigenous people have gathered at a makeshift encampment for an international forum and march against the WTO. The chief of police has offered them “an eye for an eye” if they dare to cross the barricades.

Not that, as I write, another Seattle seems likely. For one thing, Mexico’s ministry of foreign relations has denied visas to peasant leaders from Bolivia, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Cuba, Thailand, India and Haiti. For another, Cancun is remote and prohibitively expensive.

Most farmers cannot afford to travel, not even within the local state, Quintana Roo. But they have ample grievances against the WTO’s free-trade agenda. Big protests against provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), eliminating tariffs on 21 farm products, took place in Mexico City in January under the slogan: “The countryside can’t take it any more.”

As one of the peasants’ leaders put it: “The farmers are walking towards death.” In the nine years of its existence, Nafta has resulted in the loss of over 24.7 million acres of cultivated land, pushing at least 15 million peasants into landless poverty. The WTO offers more of the same.

The Zapatistas – who rose up on 1 January 1994, the day Nafta came into effect – have sent a delegation. Recorded messages from their leaders rang around the encampment.

Subcomandante Marcos said: “This is not the first time nor the last that those who think they own the planet have to hide behind their high walls and pathetic security forces to make their plans. Just as in any war, the high command of this army of the transnationals, which seeks to conquer the world in the only way that it can be conquered – by destroying it – meets under a security system which is matched in size only by their fear.”

But the WTO is in trouble. Each step it takes towards a world of multilateral free trade is slower, less sure, more plagued by infighting, arm-twisting and stagnation: hardly surprising, as each meeting involves the rich world pushing hard to get the poor world to open markets in goods, services and companies, while ruthlessly protecting its own markets.

This is not an arcane trade issue: 96 per cent of the world’s farmers live in developing countries, and agriculture provides the main source of income for roughly 2.5 billion of the world’s poorest people. The overall agricultural trade surplus of developing countries has virtually disappeared and the outlook to 2030 suggests that they will become, as a group, net importers of agricultural commodities.

Developing countries, increasingly willing to unite and put up a fight against the powerful countries, say they will refuse to agree to anything else at the summit until this issue is resolved.

But will the people in the encampment have any influence? In 1849, during the caste wars with colonial Spain, the Mayan armies were within a hair’s breadth of regaining control of the entire peninsula. Just then the planting season began, and the Maya stopped fighting to go and sow their corn – and that is how Yucatan became part of Mexico. The peasants still wrestle with the same dilemma: how do you fight global powers when you are rooted to the place where you grow your food?

Katharine Ainger is co-editor of New Internationalist