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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

World Trade Summit: Pearls of a Global Economy

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s political server Mark Hertsgaard joins host Steve Curwood to provide some background on the World Trade Organization and the free-trade agenda for its upcoming summit later this month. They discuss why environmentalists are concerned about trade agreements.


CURWOOD: It's is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

CROWD 1: (Shouting) End corporate greed!

CROWD 2: (Shouting) Take back the power!

CROWD 1: (Shouting) End corporate greed!

CROWD 2: (Shouting) Take back the power!

CURWOOD: Globalization. For some it can mean economic opportunity and almost instant access to markets, goods, and labor anywhere on the planet. For others, like these protesters, it can mean lower wages and environmental destruction. The World Trade Organization is at the heart of economic globalization, and as the WTO prepares to debate about the admission of China in Seattle later this month, public debate is becoming more strident on the broader issues. President Clinton will be there, along with scores of trade ministers from around the world, 5,000 journalists, and potentially thousands of demonstrators. We're taking a look this week at the debate over the environmental impact of globalization. In a few minutes, we'll have a report on preparations for protest, but first we welcome Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard to walk us through some of the issues in this debate. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, this is a big meeting. And if the predictions hold, up, there will be an even more sizeable protest. Tell us why environmental activists are at a World Trade Organization meeting.

HERTSGAARD: The WTO, the World Trade Organization, has become really something of a bogeyman for the environmental movement in the past few years, and not just here in the United States, also overseas. This is something that began at the Earth Summit in '92. They are looking at the WTO and realizing, wait a minute, this is the organization that is writing the rules of the road for globalization. In other words, for the twenty-first century economy. And they look at it, and they say: We don't like this because it is, for one thing, very secret and very powerful. The WTO has something that no other international organization that I'm aware of has, which is the ability to override the sovereignty of individual nation states. WTO rules take precedence over national law, over national regulations. That's a major power. And the environmentalists point out that it's a power that is largely exercised in secret. The WTO, for example, meets in secret. Its disputes are decided by a three-member panel of lawyers, and these are corporate lawyers, and there is no appeal of their decisions. So that kind of enormous power in the hands of a corporate-oriented elite makes environmentalists very nervous.

CURWOOD: Okay, now, specifically what do environmentalists say is likely to happen as a result of this secret kind of star chamber international arbitration?

HERTSGAARD: They have two complaints. One is -- or fears, I guess -- is that the WTO is going to undercut all of the environmental regulations in place now. They point, for example, to this last summer, when the European Union tried to restrict imports of United States beef that had been treated with hormones. The Europeans have fears about the health risks of this. But the Clinton Administration appealed their decision to the WTO and said this is an unfair restriction on trade. The WTO took the side of the United States and ordered the Europeans to accept that beef. Now, ironically enough, the United States has also lost on this. In 1998, when the U.S. tried to keep out shrimp that had been caught by overseas nations in a way that killed sea turtles, the U.S. said no, Endangered Species Act doesn't allow it. Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, appealed that decision to the WTO and the WTO sided with them, and so much for the Endangered Species Act.

CURWOOD: It's one thing to be concerned about the environment, but you need trade rules if you're going to have international trade. And if you don't have a body that arbitrates this, it'll be chaos. And the argument is made that the more free trade you have, the more incomes rise, the better off a lot of people are in terms of rising incomes.

HERTSGAARD: I think that sensible environmentalists accept that, of course, there have to be some rules governing global trade. The real issue is what will those rules be? And who will make them? And will those rules take into account other values besides increased corporate sales? Will they also keep our environmental standards strong?

CURWOOD: So, what exactly do the protesters hope to accomplish in Seattle, do you think, Mark? The solution can't just be to shut down world trade, can it? Or is that what they want?

HERTSGAARD: Well, there's a difference between what you do out on the streets and what you do in the corridors of power, with the negotiations. And I think there, what the environmentalists and the labor unions and the human rights activists, all these representatives of civil society, they want two things. One is a seat at the table for civil society, a seat for other people than just the trade ministers and the multinational corporations. And they want it to be meaningful. And interestingly enough there, even Bill Clinton has accepted that, a big proponent of WTO. He said there has to be more transparency. There has already been a U.S. court decision that has ordered trade representative Charlene Barshefsky to bring environmentalists and other public interest representatives onto her panels. So, that is one thing they want, is a more open, transparent process. The other thing they want, I think, is to really raise questions about the environmental and labor effects of increased trade, and to say do we really want to be trading off our environmental standards at home, just to make more money for multinational corporations? That's the way they'd like to try and phrase that. They say we should not be having a race to the bottom to destroy all these standards. Rather, we should be lifting standards up around the world.

CURWOOD: Okay, Mark. So, your prediction of what will come out of this meeting?

HERTSGAARD: One thing to watch for, Steve, and this is not a prediction, but I think it's going to be interesting to see if some of the nation-states begin to edge a little closer to the environmentalist point of view. French president Chirac, for example, has promised to make a big fuss in Seattle over genetically-modified foods. The Europeans want to label those foods because of environmental concerns. The Clinton administration has condemned that and appealed it to the WTO. I think the Europeans there, and Chirac in particular, are recognizing that boy, this WTO really does override national sovereignty. Is that really what we want to do? And so, watch for some movement on that. There may be some coming together of governments and environmentalists and labor activists to shift these roles, because this is really the defining event in what globalization is going to mean.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's Political Observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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