In the early morning hours Monday, on a remote road near the Texas-Mexico border, Mexican marines picked a deadly and rotten piece of fruit when it captured Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the sadistic boss of Los Zetas criminal cartel. Los Zetas appeared on the scene in 1999, an elite unit of the Mexican military that went rogue, working at first for the Gulf drug cartel and eventually breaking off to form their own criminal organization known for employing extremely brutal methods of torture, terror and mass murder. Los Zetas quickly became a major force in Mexican drug trafficking.
Drug cartels existed long before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, but not drug cartels as we know them today. As we approach the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, we can no longer ignore its contribution to building a powerful and violent criminal enterprise that has brought Mexico close to being labeled a failed state and made the Mexican-U.S. border into a war zone.
Most often when we analyze trade agreements, the focus is on trade volumes, jobs and manufacturing statistics, poverty levels and immigration—all extremely important ways to understand the impact of neoliberal policies bequeathed to us from Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But to fully appreciate how devastating free trade has been, we need to look more closely at the aftermath of free trade on the bonds that hold communities together. It starts out small, a single thread that eventually leads to unraveling the whole cloth.
Transparency and trade negotiations don’t seem to go together these days. Recent revelations in Spiegel disclosed that the U.S. government had been spying on its EU “partners” connected to negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, probably better stated as the Trans Atlantic Free Trade agreement, or TAFTA, which very much rhymes with NAFTA). The French and German governments are outraged, with some parliamentarians calling for a suspension of the talks, slated to start next week in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the only way civil society groups find out about the negotiations are through basically one-way conversations, where we express our concerns to trade officials, or through leaked negotiating documents. One such text came our way over the weekend, a set of position papers summarizing some of the EU’s initial goals on regulatory harmonization, which would be sent to the U.S. ahead of the talks. It includes initial proposals on regulatory issues involving the automotive sector, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, Sanitary and Phytosanitary issues (SPS), competition policy, a proposal for a chapter on trade and sustainable development, trade in raw materials and energy, and an ambitious proposal for cross-cutting disciplines on regulatory issues. It starts out by asserting that, “the TTIP offers a unique chance to give new momentum to the development and implementation of international regulations and standards (multilateral or otherwise plurilateral). This should reduce the risk of countries resorting to unilateral and purely national solutions, leading to regulatory segmentation that could have an adverse effect on international trade and investment.”
In December 2012, I received an email from Frances (Frankie) Moore Lappé, a woman whose name I had known since I was a teenager interested in hunger and poverty issues and reading all I could on the subject. I was honored. Frankie was reaching out to organizations and individuals who work to end hunger to ask if we had read the FAO’s 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report and if so, what we had made of it. Frankie was concerned about a number of things, including that the report presented too rosy a view on how the world’s governments were doing in their ambition to eliminate hunger, and too rosy a view on what economic growth could do about the problem.
It did not take Frankie long to persuade a group of us, including IATP, to take notice and formalize our concerns. Those concerns include:
As the U.S. Farm Bill debate drags on like a bad dream you can’t wake up from, Europe is entering the final stretch of multi-year negotiations on the 2014–2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As with the Farm Bill, agreement on the CAP is far from a sure thing.
In the U.S., we have the House of Representatives working overtime to eliminate funding for almost everything in the Farm Bill. The President is threatening to veto it if Congress takes too much from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) program, which accounts for close to 70 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost.
In Europe, the CAP debates have a familiar ring over direct payments and capping and coupling aid. Unlike the U.S., high on the list are proposals designed to “Green the CAP,” which includes addressing environmental and economic challenges. The CAP debate is simplified by not including a massive food aid program like SNAP, but complicated by a process that in the current phase is called “triolgues.”
Triolgues bring together the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council to hammer out the final agreement. In the European Parliament, civil society organizations like ARC 2020 have led in the debates on greening the CAP. Starting in 2010, ARC 2020 issued an outline for comprehensive reform of European agriculture and rural policy. Their proposals have been met with widespread popular support but serious foot dragging from the EU ministers. A live debate between Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş and the European ParliamentAgriculture Committee Chair, Paolo De Castro on June 20 will highlight what is at stake.
The announcement last week of a bid by China’s Shuanghui International to acquire Smithfield Foods Incorporated came midway through my research trip to Beijing for IATP’s initiative on the globalization of industrial meat production. The responses to the news from back home have been all over the map, albeit fairly predictable. But what are they saying in China? Below I share some initial views from the press, blogosphere, academia and government. I’ll have more later this week.
The government seems positive about the deal. The first thing I noticed was the use of the word “merger” in the official Xinhua News Service’s initial piece on the acquisition. (The U.S. press prefers “sale” or “takeover.”) Xinhua’s second article actually uses “Win-Win” in the title, and describes how the merger will relieve the U.S. of the burden of our excess pork while easing trade deficits and improving Shuanghui’s food safety standards. “We can learn a lot from the industry leader,” Shuanghui CEO Wan Long is quoted as saying. Clearly he has never Googled “Smithfield recall.”
The spring campaign season against frac sand mining has started to take off. It’s not that we’ve been sitting quietly all winter biding our time. As many town boards and county supervisors can tell you, opposition to frac sand mining in the Driftless region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa has been churning away for months, but something happened when the ice finally melted and the first Spring Beauties bloomed in the woods. In Minnesota, Representative Matt Schmit from Redwing introduced legislation to limit sand mining near trout streams. On April 29th, 35 Catholic Workers were arrested in Winona protesting with over 100 supporters and friends at two frac sand operations. On May 15th, IATP, Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Towns Association released a report raising concerns about the economic impact of frac sand mining in West Central Wisconsin. And coming up on June 1 in Black River Falls, a regional conference called Standing Against the Sand Storm will bring together community leaders and activists from across region to address the growing threat from industrial sand mining and find ways that we can work together.
“You can have food in the stores, but will people in the community be able to buy it?” This was the question posed by Buba Khan, of ActionAid in Africa, to attendees at a Congressional briefing IATP co-hosted last week with ActionAid, Oxfam America and the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Khan was referring to the effects of “land grabs,” a growing global phenomenon spurred by rising demand for natural resources like agricultural land and mining. These land grabs often displace people and communities who rely on the land for their livelihoods, food and water, as well as deep historical and cultural connections.
At the Congressional briefing last week, speakers from Cambodia, Ghana and Guatemala spoke about how land grabs have occurred in their countries, and what role U.N. Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land Tenure agreed to last year might play in developing new rules to protect local communities from powerful foreign investors.
Yune Mane, of the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, told attendees about how the Cambodian government had granted land to outside investors (often Chinese, French or Vietnamese) for giant rubber plantations or mining. As a result, Indigenous people in the country have lost their right to land and access to spiritual areas, affecting their access to food and increasing poverty. In Cambodia, there are actually strong laws protecting Indigenous rights, including the 2001 Land Law and 2002 Forest Law, Mane said, but enforcement of these laws has been poor.
Efforts to solve the problem of hunger and poverty by turning to the same corporations that helped create the problem have gone viral. Michelle Obama and the President of Mexico have hit on the same scheme (and the same companies) for solutions to hunger and the growing crisis of diet-related illnesses. Both will likely make matters worse.
In a recent commentary, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance asks the question, “Why is Michelle Obama’s food initiative promoting Wal-Mart?” Wal-Mart and other giant food retailers are part of Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America, a national campaign that includes in its goals eliminating “food deserts,” economically depressed communities with limited access to food. Wal-Mart, a scandal-riven corporation, has wreaked havoc on regional and local food retailers with its profits-at-any-cost business strategy that leads to thoroughly uncompetitive business environments. Local grocery stores, both chains and Mom and Pop operations, have succumbed to the market dominance of Wal-Mart, leaving many communities without a place to buy food. The Partnership’s promotion of opening new Wal-Marts in poor neighborhoods is like inviting the fox to live in the chicken coop after he’s eaten all the little chickens.
IATP joins many NGOs, academics and policy experts today in celebrating a move that could make U.S. food aid more efficient and responsive to the world’s hungry. Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2014 proposes to shift close to half the food aid budget to procuring food aid from local and regional markets rather than the shipping U.S. grains on U.S. ships halfway around the world. With local and regional purchasing, food aid can get to those who need it faster and cheaper while also building local capacity to deal with an increasingly unstable international food supply. It’s a big move, especially when you consider U.S. food aid makes up more than half of all food aid worldwide.
So why are some upset about a move that saves money and gets more food, faster, to those who need it? Enter the “iron triangle”— U.S. shippers, grain companies and a handful of humanitarian NGOs. Scared for their jobs, jealous of their profits, or concerned that Congress will not support more effective forms of aid—the members of the triangle had different reasons for supporting widely discredited programs. (See Kevin Drum’s aptly titled article “Obama Proposes Making Food Aid Less Insane” published by Mother Jones earlier this week.) None of those reasons was persuasive, though. And now the White House has joined the chorus for change.
The Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia has the largest collection of ancient mosaics in the world. Most of the mosaics, depicting Roman, Greek Phoenician and Nubian life, gods and royalty, are incomplete. Some have had to be radically reconstructed, with the help of archeology and very skilled and imaginative art conservationists. The Bardo mosaics have something in common with the World Social Forum (WSF): it is impossible to see more than a handful of the WSF’s nearly one thousand events, but it is possible to reconstruct a sense of the whole from some of its pieces.
The slogan of this WSF is The Revolution for Dignity. For a U.S. audience, this may seem like a strange slogan, but the Revolution in Tunisia, which deposed a dictator, began in January 2011 when a vegetable vendor harassed by police for operating without a license burned himself to death, literally crying to be treated with dignity. In a country with an unemployment rate of 60 percent and a large part of its wealth parked in European banks, rather than invested to create jobs, to be treated with dignity does not seem to be asking very much.