Western environmentalists go global

 

SEATTLE, Wash. - When the five-day World Trade Organization conference begins here on Nov. 30, as many as 50,000 protesters are expected to hit the streets with marches and street theater, demanding environmental, labor, safety and human-rights protections in global trade rules.

The activists, including local and national union activists and representatives from many Western environmental groups, hope to shine a spotlight on what they say are the damaging effects of unfettered global trade.

"This is the largest trade and economic summit ever held on U.S. soil," says Jeremy Madsen, Seattle field organizer with People for Fair Trade, a national coalition of prominent environmental, labor and agriculture groups. And with it, he adds, "will be the largest trade protest ever held on U.S. soil."

The World Trade Organization was created in 1995 to replace the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, or GATT. Like its predecessor, the WTO seeks to eliminate subsidies and trade barriers through a series of negotiations dealing with specific trade issues. Unlike GATT, the new organization targets environmental, labor, and health and safety laws as potential trade barriers, and places sanctions on member nations that pass laws violating WTO rules. While supporters say the WTO is the fastest route to a strong international economy, critics say the organization's rulings eliminate U.S. jobs and weaken federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act.

Washington is the nation's most trade-dependent state, but the Seattle location seems likely to maximize protest numbers. "They're playing on our home turf," says Madsen. "There's an extremely active and educated environmental and labor community here."

The 800-pound gorilla

Logging will help turn out the protesters. Trade ministers at the conference are expected to approve the Global Free Logging Agreement, a loosening of timber trade restrictions that Northwest forest activists fear will undo many of their efforts to protect the region's forests.

"The WTO is an 800-pound gorilla," says Joe Scott, conservation director with the Seattle-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, "and it wants to sit in our forests."

At a United Nations meeting in Sao Paulo last spring, American Forest & Paper Association president W. Henson Moore lobbied his colleagues to support the logging agreement, designed to eliminate tariffs in forest products trade. He called the measure "a win-win situation" that would increase logging worldwide by 3 percent to 4 percent and lower consumer prices. Northwest-based timber corporations like Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade are also serving on advisory committees to the U.S. trade representative on forest products trade policy.

A Nov. 9 court ruling directed the trade representative to appoint at least one environmentalist to each advisory committee, but activists say they're still outnumbered. They worry the agreement would increase wood consumption worldwide and eventually eliminate U.S. restrictions on the export of timber from public lands.

"The same corporations that have been abusive in Pacific Northwest forests want to spread (their logging practices) around to other countries," says Pat Rasmussen, president of Leavenworth Audubon Adopt-A-Forest. Rasmussen has worked on the logging agreement issue since its inception at trade talks two years ago, and now coordinates logging and trade issues for the American Lands Alliance. She and other forest activists from around the world met last summer to develop a global strategy on logging and trade, and they say they'll continue to work the logging and trade issue after the WTO conference closes.

More than trees

Environmentalists' concerns go beyond logging. "We've seen successful challenges to our Clean Air Act, sea turtle protections, and ... food safety standards," says Daniel Seligman, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program. For instance, federal law once said that countries exporting shrimp to U.S. markets must require their fishermen to use sea turtle-safe methods. In 1998, a WTO panel decided that the policy violated the organization's rules. The U.S. has since rewritten the law to comply with the WTO, and activists say the new law will be less effective and more difficult to enforce.

Trade proponents maintain that the organization only affects laws used to give one nation's goods an unfair advantage. Pat Davis, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, notes that the WTO allows countries to set their own standards as long as they are scientifically based. Building a global legal structure for trade is essential to creating a more stable international marketplace and that, says Davis, is good for the environment.

"When people are starving," she says, "they eat their environment. They cut down their forests."

While a strong global economy is fine with anti-WTO activists, they say no international organization - particularly one dominated by the trade interests of global corporations - should exert power over a sovereign nation's domestic laws.

"WTO rules go way beyond basic trade principles," says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. The rules, she says, "actually impose value judgments on how much environmental or food safety protection a country will be allowed to provide its people."

A media sideshow

The sheer size of the conference and its end-of-the-millennium timing are drawing all sorts of activists, including street theater groups, anarchists, militants, and even a group called Queers Fighting the WTO Conference. Protesters hoping to disrupt the talks recently attended a training camp outside Seattle to bone up on banner drops, rappelling down buildings and blockading streets.

But mainstream organizers are wondering whether substantive issues will get lost in what could be a media sideshow.

"We want to deliver a message, not a brick," says the King County Labor Council's Ron Judd. "The press is likely to chase a brick through the window rather than examine the message of labor, environment and safety standards for all."

Prominent media coverage of the planned protests and rumblings within his party have led President Clinton, a strong WTO supporter, to address concerns of critics. In early October, Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray wrote to the president, urging him to meet with protesters. The president responded in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council in which he acknowledged that the WTO needed to include labor and environmental groups in its workings. He urged trade ministers to create a working group on labor concerns and to evaluate the environmental impacts of their trade policies. In response, the WTO added another day to the Seattle conference to consider these issues and to establish a dialogue with its critics.

None of this seems likely to deter protesters, who criticize the moves as window dressing. "We welcome the opportunity to chat with trade officials," says Sierra Club's Daniel Seligman, "but what we're really looking for is action." Next week, that's what Seattle expects to get.

Chris Carrel reports from Federal Way, Washington.

You can contact ...

* People for Fair Trade, 206/770-9044;

* Washington Council on International Trade, 206/443-3826.