Survival of the fittest
December 9, 2005

Survival of the fittest

By Carlos James

In London

While many remain hooked on the discussions coming in the aftermath of the elections of December 7, any uncertainty surrounding the likelihood of survival for Caribbean sugar and banana farmers will unfold in similar dramatic fashion just days after Vincentians go to the polls.

There will be one battle, 148 nations, all of whom will be prepared to lock horns in a tabled discussion dubbed the survival of the fittest, when the World Trade Organisation (WTO)Doha Round trade ministers meeting gets going in Hong Kong on December 13. {{more}}

In a frantic rush to salvage remaining tariffs for small exporting countries, international preparatory meetings are currently ongoing in the hope that a deal on development could compensate for the deadlocked state of talks in agriculture, industrial goods and services.

Even at the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta on November 27, Commonwealth leaders reaffirmed their position as strong advocates for vulnerable small states at the Doha Round meeting.

The leaders said the WTO Doha Round provides an unprecedented opportunity to cement a rules-based and equitable international trading system that would benefit developing countries.

In a meeting that saw issues affecting small states, including CARICOM territories, being pushed to the fore, the leaders acknowledged that small states face well-recognised challenges and that they are now confronted by new difficulties, among them, faster-than-anticipated erosion of preferential trade access arrangements.

Fresh from the heads of government meeting in his first interview before the Doha Round meeting, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon told SEARCHLIGHT last Wednesday evening that small developing countries, especially in the Caribbean, now have a strong message to take to the trade ministers meeting in Hong Kong.

“We have always been concerned about small states, we are very good at talking about small states, but there is a need to measure ourselves against what we say we are going to do,” the Secretary-General said.

Regarding the issue of the call for fair trade as an alternative to free trade measures, Mr McKinnon cautioned: “Everyone is having a little semantics battle over the words fair and free trade to see who can get the higher ground on it, but I would say free and fair trade together is what’s essential in these deliberations.”

The Secretary-General noted that there is still a chance for small states to survive the Doha Round trade meetings in Hong Kong, but they would have to work hard at achieving this.

“Look at how much money is being paid out to the European Sugar producers in compensation compared to the little being paid to small Caribbean farmers. We are saying there should be much greater symmetry with what the Europe sugar producers are getting and what the Caribbean and Pacific producers get,” McKinnon stated.

“You have to see the human side of this dimension,” he explained to SEARCHLIGHT. “For instance St. Kitts have been producing sugar for Europe for years. If you are going to cut them off at the knees, make sure you are giving them a set of crutches to walk with for a while until they can establish themselves in something else.”

Painting a bleak picture for Caribbean farmers, many of whom contribute some 20 to 40 per cent to their country’s Gross Domestic Product, the Secretary-General said small states will have perpetual challenges and will never really get any better simply because they do not grow into large states and become self sufficient countries. He said finding a niche operation for Small States is never going to be easy.

“Our role here in the Commonwealth is to try and minimise the negatives and maximise the positives of small states.Where we have seen some success is where small states can manage a combination of agriculture and horticulture commodities and in the services area where there is tourism and offshore banking,” Mr McKinnon said.

Europe’s trade commissioner Peter Mandelson last Tuesday proposed a six-point package of help for poor countries as last-ditch attempts were made at talks in Brussels ahead of the Hong Kong meeting with ministers from the African, Caribbean and Pacific states, while further talks took place in Geneva last week in an attempt to finalise an agreement that would provide duty-free and quota-free access to western markets and compensation for poor countries affected by the loss of their access to Europe for bananas and sugar.