10 September 2003
Ministers and officials from 146 nations are in the Caribbean coastal resort, Cancun, Mexico, for the World Trade Organization's fifth ministerial conference. This could be a deciding moment for the organization known by its initials in English as the WTO.
During the five-day meeting, along the white sand beaches of this popular Mexican resort, representatives from nations - rich and poor - will seek compromise not so much to reach a definite agreement, but to keep the process of seeking an agreement alive. This meeting comes nearly two years after the round of discussions that began at Doha, Qatar, with an eye towards forging a comprehensive, multilateral agreement by the end of 2004.
But participating nations have failed to meet deadlines, along the way, and remain deeply divided over such issues as agricultural subsidies and reduction of tariffs. There has been a stalemate over the agriculture question, because poor nations say they cannot compete with farmers in rich nations, who receive billions of dollars in subsidies. At the same time, high tariffs in Japan, Europe and the United States keep out many goods from developing nations. Economists note, poor nations also limit their own access to food through high tariffs and limit trade with each other, through various restrictions.
The World Bank estimates a significant reduction in trade barriers, worldwide, would increase global income by as much as $520 billion a year, with over half of these gains going to poor nations. But a failure to make progress here in Cancun could derail the whole globalization process.
WTO Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi says, if the Cancun summit fails, it will take a heavy toll on the world economy and result in job losses worldwide.
A glimmer of hope was provided, in recent days, with an agreement to allow the sale of generic drugs in poor nations beset by health crises, such as AIDS. In addition, the United States and the European Union agreed to present a joint proposal on opening their agricultural markets.
The WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun will open with a speech by Mexican President Vicente Fox. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also scheduled to speak to the conference.
A few kilometers away from the convention center where this event is being held, tens of thousands of anti-globalization protesters have gathered. Groups ranging from European and American labor unions to environmental groups and Mexican peasant organizations have come to condemn the WTO and free trade. But the meetings are being held on a spit of land separated from the mainland, except for two narrow causeways that are being blocked by police during the duration of the event. Nonetheless some groups have planned marches and the potential for clashes with police remains a concern for the Mexican hosts.