HONG KONG – Protesters clashed with police as a World Trade Organization meeting opened Tuesday, and delegates said divisions between rich and poor nations over agricultural trade make major breakthroughs in the global talks unlikely.
Pascal Lamy, the WTO's director-general, officially opened the six-day meeting by urging the nearly 6,000 delegates from the Geneva-based trade body's 149 member countries to be "bold, open-minded and prepared to take some risks."
The Hong Kong meeting originally was meant to draw up an outline for a global treaty by the end of 2006 to lower or eliminate trade barriers in agriculture, manufacturing and services. But negotiations got off to a rocky start as delegates from poorer countries accused the European Union, the United States, Japan and other wealthy countries of offering insufficient cuts to their agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies.
Farming accounts for only a small slice of the world economic pie, but its critical role in the lives of billions of people has thrust it to the fore of WTO talks.
Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said the EU won't change its offer of an average 46 percent cut in farm tariffs unless developing nations offer substantive reductions in their trade barriers on manufactured goods and services. But underscoring the limited nature of his ability to negotiate, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said in Paris on Tuesday that France will not accept any EU budget accord that forces Europe to reform agricultural policy before 2013.
The United States has offered to eliminate government export subsidies for U.S. farm products by 2010 and to reduce by 60 percent the amount of trade-distorting domestic support the government provides U.S. farmers over the next five years. Developing nations counter that the U.S. offer is hollow since subsidy spending at current levels could continue.
India Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, a key figure in the talks, said he doesn't foresee an outright collapse similar to what happened at the previous ministerial gathering in Cancun, Mexico, two years ago. "Cancun was an outburst of a lack of hope. Now countries are hoping," even though "the issues are very, very contentious," he said in an interview.
A few blocks from the convention site, several dozen protesters — mainly South Korean farmers — hit police officers with bamboo sticks and tried to ram through a roadblock. The police responded with pepper spray.
The scuffle lasted about a half-hour and died down as police reinforcements arrived. No serious injuries were reported.
The protesters, who also included Japanese, Indian, Filipino and Brazilian farmers, burned a coffin that was used as a protest prop during a street march that police said drew 4,500 people. The farmers fear that if their domestic agricultural markets are opened up under an eventual WTO treaty, they won't be able to compete — and possibly could lose their livelihoods or land.
"The WTO wants to impose other country's rice and food on South Korea," said Tae-sook Lee, the head of a South Korean farmers' association. "If the WTO allows imports of foreign rice and food into Korea, 100 percent of 3.5 million Korean farmers will die."
Some delegates said that with the meeting under way, there seemed to be at least the willingness to negotiate.
"There are signs of a change in the attitude: you move then I'll move," said Seiichi Kondo, Japan's ambassador in charge of international trade and economics. "Each responsible country feels a strong pressure to engage in a real deal or business. We have to give something and of course we have to gain something."
Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim convened a meeting of the top trade officials from 110 developing nations hours after the meeting opened to discuss how to pursue a common strategy on some key issues, said Flavio S. Damico, Brazil's chief negotiator at the talks.
The United States and EU, meanwhile, sought to highlight a positive initiative by urging trading partners to help the world's poorest nations with money to help build their trade infrastructure and other services to help them better compete in world markets.
Developing countries say they need rich-world aid so they can strengthen their ports, roads, schools and bridges. It would also help them implement new WTO rules, which are often expensive, and help compensate for the loss of the preferential trade access of their products into rich world markets.
The EU said it would boost its annual contribution for so-called "Aid-for-Trade" by $1.2 billion by the year 2010, bringing its total to $2.4 billion a year. "Europe did not come to Hong Kong empty-handed on 'Aid-for-Trade,'" EU trade chief Mandelson said.
The United States contributed $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2005, and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman was to unveil additional measures Wednesday.
Mandelson also said took issue with Washington's donations of food aid around the globe when he met with Portman and ministers from other major trading powers.
"The large structured U.S. program of in-kind food aid is designed in reality to give support to U.S. agricultural producers. It distorts trade and depresses local production," Mandelson told reporters. "A radical reform of U.S. food aid, therefore, is an essential part of any agreement we may reach in this round."
But Portman said he sensed "a European obsession" with the issue of food aid.
"I think there are other priorities that are much more important," he said.