Claudette checks in from Cancun
Editor’s Note: My friend Claudette is on Playa del Carmen this month, resting up after a summer touring with Jane’s Addiction, and has graciously allowed me to post her briefs from the beach.
The Mango Manifesto
by Claudette on Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Although it was certainly coincidence that brought my Caribbean holiday destination to within 60 miles of Cancun, Mexico, the site of the 5th World trade Organization Ministerial Conference, it was my restlessness that drew me into the thick of it. For as cynical as I can be at times, I still believe in being counted, I still believe in the masses, and most certainly I believe in countering the cultural homogenization that’s spreading rapidly from Bombay to Bolivia.
Massive protests, much like those of Seattle in 1999, were planned for the entire week prior to the start of the meetings. Tens of thousands of people from across Mexico and the globe were projected to descend upon Cancun, and workshops and public events on everything from organic farming to alternative economies were organized across the city.
Now remind me again, why all the protests?
Plain and simple, the goal of the WTO is to remove all barriers that hinder trade among nations. I’m pretty confident they’d tell you the same thing. The trouble is, however, that much of what the WTO considers to be “barriers” are also things we call environmental laws, fair-labor practices and consumer safety regulations.
For example, the Bush Administration recently filed a complaint with The WTO to force the EU to lift its ban on genetically modified foods, claiming that US farm commodities have been unfairly denied access to European markets. To make things even juicier, if any country’s laws are found to be in violation of WTO policy, they are forced to change the law or face perpetual trade sanctions, often totaling in the millions of dollars. trade sanctions hit large, industrial nations like the US or EU member nations hard enough – imagine their impact on the developing world?
Small, local farmers have been slammed as well. Each year, over a billion dollars in subsidies is given to large agri-businesses, who then drop their prices below production value and export their goods for sale in the developing world. There is simply no way local growers can compete. It’s a practice called “dumping” and its happening from Asia to Africa and certainly right here in Mexico. This practice is leading small farmers down the path of extinction, no doubt.
Sadly, there are many reasons for dissent.
So on September 10th, 2003, the first day of the meeting of ministers, I felt compelled to be counted.
I boarded a bus for Cancun about noon and arrived just over an hour later. Straight away, I found one of the many sites erected to disseminate information about the demonstrations. They informed me of a march for farmers’ rights and food sovereignty slated for 1pm. I looked at my watch; the procession had just begun.
The first thing that struck me were the number of children everywhere actually, the number of families. Normal people. Mothers. Working people. It felt good. I floated through the crowd, snapping pictures. For a while, I followed behind the Agricultura Organica group who carried a large banner warning of the dangers of genetically modified corn. A little later I came upon a group of women standing off to the side holding a sign that read No transgeniticos, No Mas Miseria. Almost everyone, everywhere wore green bandanas in solidarity. I even saw a group of school children wearing shark costumes, telling the story of little fish being eaten by a big mean fish. (Ok, actually, I have no idea why they were wearing shark costumes, so your guess is as good as mine. They were damn cute though.)
All in all, I followed alongside the protest for about an hour, until the procession had gone as far as the police barricades set up just outside the meeting zone.
With remarkable ease I approached the fence line, noticing a group of about 50 Koreans wearing signs around their bodies that read “WTO Kills Farmers.” They chanted in Korean and raised their fists, much like the Black Panthers of the 60’s. Police, of course, were on the other side of the barricade.
As I stood at the fence line, I was especially interested to watch as one man climbed to the top of the barricade, shouted something in Korean, and unfurled a banner that read Grant Korea Developing Country Status. He had such a clear and focused presence on the barricade – I found myself staring for several minutes. I snapped a few more pictures and decided that the heat was getting to be too much. I can be a lazy activist; I will admit it. I started to retrace my steps back to where the march had begun, in search of afternoon shade and a much needed cerveza.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned of the magnitude of the day’s events.
As I stood at the breakfast counter ordering my cafe solo, I glanced at the headline of the local paper. Protesta Mortal – Suicido, it read. And there he was. The man whose picture I had taken atop the barricade. The front page carried two photos – one nearly identical to the picture that I had taken, and the other…shot a few moments later… showing the man plunging a knife into his own heart. I thought I would vomit.
I walked away with my coffee and newspaper, shaken.
Over the Internet, the news spread quickly. The man’s name was Lee Kyung-Hae and he was a small rice farmer from Korea. He’d fought for of the rights of small farmers for quite some time, and had even undertaken a hunger strike outside WTO headquarters in Geneva earlier this year. Apparently, almost no one in his delegation knew that he planned to take his own life that morning.
Of course I didn’t know Lee Kyung-Hae, and I didn’t even witness the horrific act. Yet the rest of the day felt foggy and damp, although the Yucatan sun beat down on me as heavily as it had done every day since I arrived.
Many in Cancun began to call Kyung-Hae’s suicide martyrdom while others pointed to possible depression or mental illness. One thing that’s for sure is how awful it must have felt to continually fight against a monolith like the WTO. Talk about David and Goliath.
As I lay in bed that night, I thought about the mango tree that grew in our back yard in Florida when I was very young. The tree was so voluptuous and so prolific that we simply couldn’t eat all the fruit. So my grandmother would sell the extras, four for a dollar, to all within earshot. At one point we had so many that she practically set up a roadside stand. They were always gone in seconds.
There is something really beautiful about buying what you eat from a person and not a machine.
The events in Cancun last week make me believe this more so than ever – buy small and buy local. It’s a manifesto I try to live by wherever I go. It’s not enough but it’s what I can do.