Will they ever understand?

To the ministers and corporate lobbyists at the WTO summit in Cancun, the suicide of a Korean farmer

In Cancun, Maria Livanos Cattaui, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce, the world's most powerful corporate lobby group (its members include water privatisers such as Suez and agribusinesses such as Monsanto), wagged her finger forcefully. "Grandstanding, posturing and headline-grabbing antics," she insisted, "might play well in the media, but they will do little to advance these talks - and will do even less to make a positive difference in the lives of the world's people who need it most."

I do not know if she had in mind the "grandstanding" of Lee Kyung-hae, of the Korean National Future Farmers Association, who stabbed himself in the heart with a Swiss army knife at the security fence that kept 10,000 protesters away from the latest World Trade Organisation talks. Lee, a 55-year-old widower with three children, had already been on hunger strike last March at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, as the agenda for Cancun was being drawn up. He had spent a lifetime campaigning for farmers' rights. As in so many other countries, the "liberalisation" of agriculture in South Korea had led to overproduction and cheap imports, and then huge price drops. Lee himself lost his farm. "What would your emotional reaction be if your salary was suddenly cut in half, without you knowing the reason?" he wrote during his March vigil. He described the abandoned, decaying villages of rural Korea, where a wave of suicides had gone through the farming community. "Some farmers just gave up farming and migrated to the urban slums. Others became bankrupted through debt . . . Once I ran to a house where a farmer had abandoned his life by drinking toxic chemicals because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the screams of his wife."

To the officers of the International Chamber of Commerce, Lee's death was just an off-stage annoyance. They announced that the negotiators "need to be left alone to get on with the very difficult work of finding agreement among 146 nations" and urged them "not be distracted by the noise of protesters and minority interest groups". Presumably, nobody was supposed to think of the corporate lobbyists themselves, pressing hard for an investment agreement, as a minority interest group. As the Nestle chief executive, Helmut Maucher, said: "We want neither to be the secret girlfriend of the WTO nor should the International Chamber of Commerce have to enter the WTO through the servants' entrance." But the International Chamber of Commerce has permanent representation at the WTO, while the poor never made it past the security fence, let alone the "servants' entrance".

Journalists and media workers, in their five-star suites in the luxury hotel zone (for which you needed security clearance), were almost equally uncomprehending about what had driven Lee to suicide. One wondered why, "even though the protesters know they're not going to get into the convention centre and meet the delegates, they still go and protest at the fence". Others dismissed Lee's death as an attention-grabbing media gimmick. Lee's fellow-countryman Jim Hug found it necessary to explain: "In Asia, such a death is referred to as self-immolation. It is a very honourable form of sacrifice as a demonstration of the impact of oppression on oneself and one's people."

Even the liberal NGOs did not understand the social movements on the streets. While their focus was on getting access to the rich world's markets for food products from poor countries, the International Farmers' and Indigenous Forum - an alliance of small farmers, peasants and landless people, with a global membership of 100 million - wanted food and agricultural issues removed from the WTO's remit entirely. At a stadium full of campesinos wearing trademark green T-shirts and caps, members insisted that, although there was nothing wrong with trade, the first priority for poor nations was to produce food to meet the needs of their own populations, not to sell abroad. From their point of view, food is a human right, not a commodity. Yet Oxfam's view is that the protesters - whom it dubbed "globophobes" - should support the WTO because only its existence prevented rich countries from further exploiting the poor through bilateral trade deals. But bilateral deals have been happening all along, working in addition to the WTO. As one US ambassador put it: "WTO or no WTO, we plan to do just what suits us."

Far from being pointless, the protests of the excluded have helped to deepen democracy inside the WTO. The spectacle of carnivalesque theatres of popular democracy outside economic summits highlights the secrecy of the negotiations of trade ministers and corporate lobbyists that goes on behind police lines.

It was the protests that gave notice to delegates from poor countries that, if they allowed themselves to be stitched up at Cancun, when they returned, they would be committing political suicide. The Korean trade delegation, which visited the general hospital in Cancun to which Lee Kyung-hae was taken before he died, and which prayed over a "Stop the WTO" banner soaked with his blood, found itself under immense pressure and domestic scrutiny. The Filipino thinker Walden Bello attributed the collapse of the negotiations to the Korean delegation's refusal, among other factors, to discuss issues such as the rights of foreign inward investors without a commitment from the US and EU to give way on the subsidies to their own farmers. With Kenya and India, the Koreans were the first to walk out of the negotiations.

But still the rich countries don't understand. One lobbyist from the European employers' group UNICE said that the G23 bloc of developing countries, which refused to give in to the rich countries' demands at the WTO, had "set us back 30 years". In other words, we are back to the 1970s, when newly independent colonies dared to use their combined weight to press for a "new international economic order" that would challenge global inequality between rich and poor nations. There is just one thing that the social movements and the corporate lobbyists both understand: that the real issue is not trade, but power.


Across the world, voices were raised in protest

It was not only in Mexico that the protests against the WTO were heard. Millions who were unable to travel to the summit - either because they couldn't get visas or because the journey to Cancun was prohibitively expensive - held protests around the world that went largely unreported in the media.

India In Bangalore, 35,000 Indian farmers took to the streets, drawing attention to more than 200 peasant suicides in the state of Karnataka so far this year due to spiralling costs and falling prices as a result of "liberalisation". Forty farmers wrecked furniture and windows in the offices of Monsanto's former research facility and "served the company a notice to leave India".

Thailand In Bangkok, farmers, labourers and students held a week of anti-WTO protests. One protester tied himself to a cross holding rice plants in each hand, his mouth gagged shut. Kingkorn Narintarakul of Thai Action on Globalisation explained: "Thailand's poor . . . face the effects of unfair trade agreements and feel the need to raise their voices in opposition . . . They said that if we do not come to join the protest we will have nothing left to eat."

Philippines A caravan of 50 "jeepneys" full of peasants from the northern province of Luzon converged on Manila and was greeted with cheers by service workers, fish workers and the urban poor to create an 8,000-strong protest on the city streets. When two other caravans from Laguna and Bicol were stopped on their way to the capital, they blockaded the highways.

South Africa Campaigners from the Anti-Privatisation Forum and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee planned to go to Cancun. Instead, they stayed in Johannesburg to deal with developments in the city's water wars. The water company was installing new pre-paid meters in Phiri, which would scupper the residents' non-payment campaign against unaffordable price rises.

Ghana In Accra, the General Agricultural Workers' Union marched to the Ministry of Finance to demand it that it speak out against the rich countries' agricultural policies and against the patent rules that make Aids drugs unaffordable in poor African countries.

Elsewhere Cotton farmers from Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali and Senegal sent a 200,000-signature petition to the summit to demand the elimination of US domestic subsidies to farmers. There were solidarity protests in Honduras, Belize, Brazil and many other places in the Americas. Protests and teach-ins were held in 60 US cities, as well as in many European countries. Protests in Madrid and Barcelona were accompanied by Spain's first "crop-pullings" against genetically modified organisms, held simultaneously across the country to coincide with the WTO meeting.

Katharine Ainger is co-editor of a book about social movements, We Are Everywhere, just published by Verso. www.WeAreEverywhere.org