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Marginalising the marginalised

By Asha Bee Abraham

The WTO erodes women's right not only to the security of a regular meal, but also involvement in decision-making around food production and agricultural development

“Now we are landless, and impoverished more than ever,” says Carmen Buena, a rice and vegetable farmer from Pampanga, Philippines. Carmen was one of the witnesses in the December 2005 Women’s Tribunal that accused the World Trade Organisation (WTO) of committing crimes against humanity. While the WTO held its ministerial conference in Hong Kong, rural and indigenous women gathered in the city and charged the organisation with causing displacement and loss of livelihood, resulting in poverty, malnutrition and death among women and children.

International trade occurs in the context of gender and class inequalities, which are arguably the greatest in certain parts of Asia. Women produce the majority of the world’s staple food crops, providing around 90% of the labour involved in rice cultivation across South East Asia. However, despite being primary agricultural labourers and food producers, women are generally the first to lose their food security in times of income or food shortages. The Women’s Tribunal on the WTO called for food sovereignty -- the right not only to the security of a regular meal, but also involvement in decision-making around food production and agricultural development, to ensure the wellbeing of the family and community. The WTO, they say, erodes these rights.

Export-oriented agriculture

Until very recently, the majority of farmers throughout Asia would grow a range of seasonally varied crops for their own consumption, along with some extra for trade at local markets. Now, with a switch to export-oriented agriculture, they are required to generate products that fit into the narrow constraints of the global market. What is more, their production is expected to be large-scale, uniform and highly specialised.

In her testimony to the Women’s Tribunal, Yaowapa Promwong related that, until a decade ago, families in her village in northeast Thailand exchanged seeds with each other. Most families would grow rice as their main crop, each usually growing several different varieties. Different families therefore had different harvesting seasons, allowing for community members to help each other during the harvests. Through such activities, production costs were kept low and community spirit was strong. In addition to their primary crops, families would often farm fish, prawns and other shellfish in the rice fields, grow vegetables, and raise livestock around their homes. They produced enough food for their own consumption, often with surplus to trade at local markets.

Around 10 years ago, however, many farmers, including Yaowapa’s father, were personally invited by Thai government officials to attend workshops on how to industrialise their farms and raise productivity for export. Several multinational agri-businesses attended these workshops and gave out gifts of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, which farmers immediately began using with enthusiasm. Yaowapa describes the resulting changes in her village as socially and environmentally devastating.

The decline of seed-saving

In much of rural Asia, women like Yaowapa have traditionally been seed-savers and plant-breeders. Their knowledge of seed-selection and conservation has enabled villagers to grow produce appropriate to the land. Thus, heritage seeds have been passed down over generations, along with the family land itself. When growing for export, however, the produce must fit certain characteristics defined by foreign marketers. Many farming families have now discontinued seed-saving, turning instead to seeds from multinational agri-businesses that supposedly know the market demand.

In addition, the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement allows multinational agri-businesses to patent local seeds and life forms. As a result, multinationals such as Monsanto and Syngenta are now able to patent the results of centuries of breeding by Asian peasant women.

Chemical-intensive agriculture

The move towards large-scale monoculture farming brings greater vulnerability to farmers as their seasonal income depends on the outcome of just one or two crops. In order to facilitate fast and uniform growth, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have been promoted by agri-businesses in the place of local, natural and generally free agricultural inputs such as manure. According to Carmen, the costs of agricultural inputs have increased by 200-300% over the last 10-15 years, while the selling prices of produce have not matched this rise.

“Our land, water and the environment are poisoned,” said Shanthi of Tamil Nadu, whose family is dalit, belonging to the lowest rung of India’s caste system. She explained that because women -- specifically dalit women -- usually apply the pesticides, they have been most harshly affected, with many in Shanthi’s village suffering from breast and cervical cancer, infertility, or giving birth to children with mental/physical disabilities. Ill health, of course, causes more financial problems, especially while trying to access healthcare services privatised through the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

Imports and subsidies

The introduction of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), along with the resulting drop in import tariffs and regulations in Majority World countries, have seen more and more small-scale farmers unable to compete with the influx of cheaper, subsidised foreign products. The consequences of this are exacerbated since farmers, encouraged to grow just a few varieties of produce primarily for export, are rendered vulnerable to price fluctuations relating to those particular items.

Like most families in her soum (village), Purevdulam, from Gobi province in Mongolia, trades dairy products and sells wool and cashmere in the spring. However, ever since Mongolia joined the WTO in 1997, the influx of subsidised foreign products has forced large numbers of local and national processing factories out of business and, along with other local herders, Purevdulam now sells her wool, cashmere and skin products to export agencies at a loss.

Women resist

Although the stories of Carmen, Yaowapa, Shanthi and Purevdulam number just four, similar tales can be heard millions of times over in rural communities across the region. The Asia-Pacific region is home to two-thirds of the world’s undernourished. Rural and indigenous women make up the majority of this figure, as the socio-economic hardships brought by the WTO compound existing gendered discrimination and the inherent disadvantages of a rural life. During the 11 years of the WTO’s existence, women throughout rural Asia have been facing heightened economic, health and social problems as their governments have adopted trade liberalisation policies, and as local farms have shifted to capital-intensive, export-oriented agriculture.

With the support of campaigns such as that of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), ‘Don’t Globalise Hunger’ (http://dontglobalisehunger.org), rural and indigenous women have come together from around the region to share their experiences and thereby learn that their problems are not isolated or unique. Women in the region have been organising local meetings to disseminate their understanding of trade liberalisation and its impact on their communities, and to discuss how they can resist corporate control of their villages and livelihoods. The women in Yaowapa’s village, for example, are reverting to organic agriculture systems and encouraging a community shift towards self-reliance in production and consumption.  Farmers in Kerala, India, hold organic bazaars as alternative trading markets where they can sell their produce, independent of middlemen (see http://www.thanal.org/organicbazaar/id1.html). The bazaar connects small, marginalised farmers with consumers in ways that build mutual trust and local accountability.  

Women are also forming farmers’ coalitions for lobbying governments around food and agriculture policies.  For example, despite her 18-hour workday, 60-year-old Carmen also acts as the chairperson of the National Federation of Peasant Women in the Philippines (AMIHAN), an NGO that supports peasant women to advocate for agrarian reform in ways that respond to their situations as peasants and as women. Rural women are also forging alliances with other regional organisations, such as the Asian Peasant Women Network, the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network, the International Gender and Trade Network (http://www.igtn.org), and the Pesticide Action Network (http://www.panap.net ).

Although such forms of resistance may be considered miniscule in the face of the huge power structures of the WTO, the United States, the European Union and multinational corporations, these actions have had the immediate effect of replacing feelings of frustration, isolation and depression with community spirit and hope. Through these means, women are not only acting defiantly against the global corporate system, but also powerfully towards meeting their own needs and fulfilling their visions for food sovereignty at the local community level.

(This article is also being published in the G20 edition of Chain Reaction, the magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia)

(Asha Bee Abraham uses her personal experience of having worked with the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (www.apwld.org) to outline the destruction caused by World Trade Organisation agreements in Asia, and how women are organising to resist)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2007