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WTO Debate: Are Fish And Forests Products Like Toys?

by Ngoc Nguyen

on Hong Kong WTO summit

(IPS) HONG KONG -- One of the most contentious issues at this week's World Trade Organization (WTO) summit here is the trade in what is technically called non-agricultural products.

Under WTO rules, fish, forest and mineral products are classified as non-agricultural goods and lumped together with manufactured items like toys. But fisher folk and environmentalists point out that these are shared natural resources, the management of which has major repercussions on local communities and the environment.

Fishers from developing countries worry that if their markets are opened wide, as some countries are lobbying for at the meeting, they will be flooded with cheap fish from large-scale operators.

"Liberalizing fisheries could endanger the livelihoods of up to 40 million people who rely completely on small-scale fishing for food and livelihoods," said Ronnie Hall of Friends of the Earth International in a statement.

"If Canada, New Zealand and Norway get their way and include fisheries in the talks, multinational corporations would move in to profit from the natural resources of the developing world at the expense of poor farmers, workers, fisher folks and indigenous peoples," she added.

On Tuesday, more than a hundred fisher folk from South and Southeast Asia rallied at Hong Kong's Star Ferry pier against WTO policies that they say result in commercial overfishing and threaten their food supply and livelihoods.

They festooned several boats with colorful banners that read: "Stop the destruction of our coastal waters" and "When will the poor get rich?" Then they boarded the boats and set sail in Victoria Harbor. The fishers say the aquatic parade celebrates the ocean on which they depend.

After crisscrossing the harbor several times, the fishers stopped outside the WTO convention center, which is flanked on three sides by water, to voice their demands to trade delegates from 149 countries gathered there for the Dec. 13-18 meeting.

Roberto Larosa is a fisher from the Philippines. He says that under free trade policies, the coastal waters of his country are considered fair game to foreign commercial fishers.

"When the commercial fishing vessel enters the municipal waters, one night of its operation compares to three months for the small fisher," he says. "They leave nothing for U.S. and it leads to more over-fishing."

Under Filipino law, commercial fishing boats are supposed to stay out of waters used by local, small-scale fishers, but Larosa says that has not stopped them from moving into his turf.

"They ignore the laws," he says. "They are still entering and we cannot go with them. They have active gears and we only use the hook and line."

As a result, Larosa says he must fish some 20 hours a day just to catch enough to feed his family.

Bas Umali, an organizer with the Tambuyog Development Center in the Philippines, says commercial operations have another advantage -- they receive subsidies from the government.

"The subsidy is in the form of no tax," he says. "And they provide fuel subsidies to the commercial sector. They provide subsidies for the rich sector, but not for the 1.7 million small fishers in the country."

Depending on how the WTO negotiations this week play out, commercial fishers may get another perk in the form of reduced or zero tariffs. Activists warn that such a move would have a devastating impact on local communities.

"The low-quality fish are dumped onto the markets of developing countries by large-scale fishing fleets from rich countries," said Friends of the Earth spokesman David Wasko.

"In the Philippines, we've seen tariffs drop over a decade and a half from 35 percent to 5 percent, and 20 percent of the small fishing communities in the country lost their livelihood because of that change of policy there."

Wasko says changes to tariff and subsidy levels can also wreak havoc on the environment.

"What we're seeing on a global scale is that if you reduce tariffs on species of blue fin tuna, you're going to see a drop in the stock of blue fin tuna, which is already in very perilous straits," he says. "Ninety percent of blue fin tuna in the Western Atlantic have disappeared since the 1970s and we're likely to see that continue."

According to Friends of the Earth, nearly three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are depleted, over-exploited or extinct.

Filipino fisherman Nestor Blovino is also feeling the impact of reduced tariffs. He used to catch 20 kilos of fish daily, but now he can only harvest about three to four kilos, for which he earns 150 pesos -- about $1.50.

Blovino has eight children, four of whom are still in school, and he worries that they will have to drop out. "While we cannot get as much fish as we need to survive and sell for our livelihood, we are forced to compete with heavy importation of cheaper fish into the Filipino market, which undermines our ability to sell our products to the market and get a profit," said Blovino.

"In other words, the fish that we are selling is priced higher than the fish that is flooding the Filipino market," he said, adding that he does not want his children to fish because there will be no more fish left by the time they reach adulthood.

Fisherman Roberto Larosa says while commercial fishing fleets are only interested in profits, small-scale fishers see the ocean a part of their culture and are more likely to want to protect it.

"We're not only catching fish, but we do some rehabilitation," Larosa said. "We do mangrove reforestation and we make more room to breed more fish, but those commercial fishers just come to catch fish and get everything and leave and there's no more."

Wasko says the WTO has paid lip service to sustainable development, but has not lived up to the rhetoric.

"If the agenda is reducing tariffs in fish and fish products, the mission of the WTO will be to achieve that goal and not to be highly concerned with what impacts that will have," he said.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have rejected the liberalization of fisheries, and in recent weeks the European Union also amended its position to explicitly state that "the EU is not pushing for an extra sector by sector effort to liberalize trade in natural resources such as fish, forestry and mining."

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Albion Monitor December 17, 2005 (

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