Peasant Farmers Show Strength In Cauldron Of Grassroots Politics

9 September, 2003
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Peasant farmers show strength in cauldron of grassroots politics

John Vidal in Cancun
Wednesday September 10, 2003
The Guardian

Representatives of 100 million peasant farmers opened a conference yesterday to counter globalisation.

In contrast to a giant nearby Walmart store selling electronic
dancing Santas and US-grown rice, and the the air conditioned luxury of Cancun's hotel quarter, where the World Trade Organisation talks open today, the farmers are meeting in a searingly hot indoor badminton court in central Cancun. For the rest of the week, this court will be a cauldron of grassroots politics.

Under pictures of Che Guevara and the early 20th-century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, speaker after speaker prompted loud cheers yesterday from 1,000 standing, singing and chanting delegates, mostly by denouncing the WTO as "liars" and "thieves".

Two uniformed Walmart workers crossed the road separating the superstore and the world's poorest farmers to side squarely with the peasants.

"Cancun is a symbol of globalisation, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor," said Juan. He works on the checkout of Walmart, whose £126bn-a-year turnover dwarfs the GDP of many developing countries.

"I feel that Walmart uses people as objects. I'm not against it, but in their world, everyone is cheated so people do not know the value of anything," said Martin, who wore a Walmart jacket sporting a smiley symbol and the message, "May I help you?"

"Walmart buys cheap food in Mexico, then they take it to the US to be processed and sell it back here," he said.

The alternative meeting will last all week and was augmented last night by more than 1,000 Mexican peasant farmers who pitched camp opposite the store. By the time the WTO meeting closes, the organisers expect up to 10,000 farmers, indigenous peoples, fishermen, and the landless of 30 - mainly Latin American - countries to arrive.

"Tens of thousands of people from Mexico would be here today but they cannot afford to come," said a spokesman for Via Campesina, one of the organisers.

Peter Rossett, an analyst with the US-based thinktank Food First, said: "This meeting of the people excluded from the WTO negotiations but at the sharp end of their policies is very significant because it shows the growing strength of the world's social movements.

"These movements are growing fast, everywhere. For the first time, you have global alliances forming and an emerging consensus of small farmers and others around the world."

Mr Rossett believes the centre of opposition to the WTO is shifting away from non-government groups, which he says are largely unaccountable, to more democratically elected grassroots groups.

"What we are seeing now is the emergence of a real force which can mobilise people around the world. There is a strong sense that a change is happening. Governments in developing countries are be coming very aware of what is happening and feel increasingly able to turn round and reject the WTO," he said.

Barry Coates, of the World Development Movement, said: "For too long, politicians have pretended that opposition to the WTO has come from a small group of white, middle-class do-gooders. What we are seeing now is emergence of new mass movements from across the spectrum of the developing world."

Later this week, the most well-known of all the social movements is expected to make a spectacular entrance. The Zapatista rebels of nearby Chiapas, who effectively run a third of the sprawling state, are expected to exploit the world stage at Cancun.

Their presence could have considerable significance. The group that took up arms on New Year's day 1994, to coincide with the start of the North American free trade agreement (Nafta), is widely seen as the first real opposition to unfettered free trade and the standard bearer for the developing world's protest movement.


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