12/15/2005, 00.00
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Rich and poor countries wrangling over respective trade barriers

In three days of talks, specific and short-term issues risk overshadowing fundamental questions.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) – At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting currently underway in Hong Kong, developing countries are leading the charge against rich nations demanding they make concrete and immediate concessions. At the same time, many are asking themselves about the real purpose of the organisation.

Some observers warn that the real talks are not taking place at the formal, plenary sessions but in small, informal gatherings, where the danger of bilateral or regional accords looms large.

African cotton producers met yesterday to discuss ways to gain greater access to Western markets. They warned Today they would refuse to endorse any agreement if rich countries, especially the US, failed to commit themselves to reducing official cotton subsidies.

"We came here to get concrete results, not to hear more proposals that will never be respected," said Ibrahim Malloum, head of the African Cotton Producers Association.

Chad Trade Minister Odjimbaye Soukate Ngarmbatinan, speaking of the plight of African farmers, said that "misery is not even an appropriate word to describe their state of utter abjection."

The US did offer to remove tariffs on African cotton, but for many that is not enough so long as Washington subsidies producers.

Latin American nations called on the conference to condemn the EU's new tariff plan for bananas, saying it violated rules of global commerce.

"If these EU actions are tolerated, if our requests for support and solidarity are met with a collaborative silence, the round, the WTO system, and our developing-economy interests will be the biggest losers," said Mario Jimenez, Honduras' agriculture minister.

EU trade chief Peter Mandelson insisted that the EU won't improve on its offer to cut agricultural trade barriers, including an average 46 per cent cut in farm tariffs, unless opening industrial and services markets to foreign competition is not on the table.

He has proposed to give the 32 poorest WTO members with a per capita income of less than US$ 750 year duty-free and quota-free access to developed markets. 

For its part, the US has urged the EU to set a date to end subsidies. The EU has agreed in principle to end farm export subsidies but wants concessions from the US in return, particularly on food aid.

For the EU, the US scheme, which guarantees farmers a market for their crops at times of emergency, is a subsidy and distorts the market.

The G20 grouping of middle-sized economies that includes China, Brazil and India is highly critical of the US, the EU and Japan. Its members are concerned that opening their domestic industrial and services markets might cause serious losses to their younger companies and benefit foreign multinationals.

"Talks have not moved forward as there has been no movement in agriculture," lamented Kamal Nath, Indian commerce minister.

Brazil, for its part, has complained about feudal leftovers and unacceptable privileges.

Even the World Bank has called for greater equity towards developing countries.

"In the three days the meetings have taken so far, the rich countries have transferred more than US$ 2 billion to their farmers in various forms of support," World Bank Vice President Danny Leipziger said in a statement. "In the same period, the 300 million poorest people in Africa have earned less than billion between them." (PB)

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