São Paulo 13 June 2004

The 11th Session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD XI) formally begins tomorrow but it appears that agriculture has already occupied the centre stage. Agriculture was one of the major causes of the debacle of the Fifth WTO Ministerial at Cancún last September and since then efforts have been made to bring convergence over this contentious issue. Several rounds of discussions have been held between the two major groups – the EU and US on one side and the G-20 on the other, but with little success. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy arrived in São Paulo to hold consultations on agriculture with other big players, particularly India, Brazil and South Africa.

Speaking at the Civil Society Forum, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan echoed the voice of the civil society on the issue of agricultural trade liberalisation. “I share your concern about agricultural and other subsidies in the developed world that create unfair competition, and about how hard it is for developing-country goods to gain access to rich-country markets,” he said.

The Civil Society Forum expressed deep concern over the collapse of the commodity economy in their declaration: “As the largest single source of employment, incomes, public revenue and foreign exchange in many low-income countries, particularly the least developed countries, the commodity sector is a major determinant of current growth and of prospective development. Its near disappearance from the global development agenda owes much to the ‘laissez faire’ view that the sector’s performance reflects the functioning of the markets and that, over time, the affected farmers, producers and economies should adjust and become more efficient,” the declaration stated. It called for global policy responses including the active involvement of UNCTAD to address problems caused by market failures. It recommended the creation and management of multilateral mechanisms to regulate and support international markets for agricultural products.

To its disappointment, Kofi Annan did not specify any special role that UNCTAD could play in checking the falling commodity prices at the global level. He simply stated that the UN system alone cannot regulate agriculture trade. However, he suggested having a larger civil society and business sector involvement in the functioning of the United Nations.

In addition to this, Rubens Ricupero, Secretary-General of UNCTAD pointed out the need for re-establishing the link between trade and employment. This process began in the United States during President Kennedy’s administration under the Trade Adjustment Act. Ricupero also called for linking employment creation as a key component of global trade negotiations.