Guest Commentary

By Anuradha Mittal
The Public Eye - Summer 2004 - Vol. 18, No. 2
Summer 2004

Last September, 146 trade ministers from around the world gathered in the Mexican resort of Cancún for the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial, intending to "create fair global trade rules." The Ministerial also brought together thousands of farmers, indigenous peoples, and youth, who were protesting the secretive nature of the negotiations and the brute economic power wielded by the United States and Europe in the WTO, which protects the interests of politically influential corporations and agribusiness at the expense of the working poor and family farmers.

On September 10, Lee Kyung Hae, leader of the Korean Federation of Advanced Farmers Association, climbed the barricades that were built to keep away the protestors. Wearing a sandwich board that read "The WTO Kills Farmers," Lee took his own life with a knife to his heart. He had watched over the years, hundreds of his comrades driven off their lands, and his own farm had foreclosed four years ago.

Negotiations over the rules and governance of global trade have disregarded and constricted human aspirations and security. They are shrouded in secrecy, carried out in a distinctly non-transparent and cavalier way in which the proponents of economic globalization make crucial decisions with no participation from those—for example, family farmers—likely to be negatively affected by their outcome.

In the 1930s, 25 percent of the U.S. population lived on the nation's 6 million farms. Today America's 2 million farms are home to less than 2 percent of the population. Small family farms have been replaced by large corporate farms, with just 8 percent of farms accounting for 72 percent of sales. The U.S. Dept of Labor projects the largest job loss among all occupations, to be in agriculture between 1998-2008. This is not surprising when the average farm-operator household earns only 14 percent of its income from the farm and the rest from off-farm employment. These figures pale in comparison to one fact: the Number One cause of death for farmers in the United States is suicide!

The situation is no different for farmers in the Third World. For example, Mexico, which was once self-sufficient in basic grains now, largely as result of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), imports 95% of its soy, 58% of its rice, 49% of its wheat, and 40% of its meat. NAFTA is killing the Mexican countryside, with an estimated 600 peasant farmers forced off their land each day. In India, an estimated 25,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1996 by consuming pesticides as they face mounting debts and loss of markets.

Lee represents the face of sustainable agriculture that is challenging the corporate take-over of our food system through free trade agreements like the WTO, NAFTA, FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas). The rallying cry of this global movement is "food sovereignty is a human right," and it demands governments across the globe:

  • Prioritize local, regional, and national needs, based on agriculture that sustains small farmers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, and other local communities;
  • Protect local and national markets of basic food stuffs to give priority to the products of local farmers;
  • Promote sustainable peasant agriculture which is more productive and protects global biodiversity;
  • Promote a direct, shared and decentralized relationship between food producers and the rest of the community;
  • Implement genuine land reform to ensure redistribution of land;
  • Ensure a new sustainable farm economy as the centerpiece of the economic development model of each country.

Farmers are not alone in this resistance. Such trade agreements have attracted serious criticism from civil society groups that hold them responsible for further weakening labor standards, undermining public health and national sovereignty, and wreaking environmental destruction. Making connections across issues this movement is using the human rights framework to organize and mobilize and is the civil rights movement of the day. After all, countries that are members of the WTO have existing human rights commitments and obligations under international treaties and conventions. As a consequence these individual states, as well as the larger community of states, have an important regulatory role and responsibility to ensure that economic policies and practices do not undermine and conflict with human rights commitments.

This is a legal obligation, not a mere policy option.

Anuradha Mittal, an internationally renowned expert on trade, development, human rights and agriculture issues, is the founder and executive director of The Oakland Institute. She can be reached at

More from the
Summer 2004 Issue:

Spotlight On

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections