John Madeley

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Observer News Service

 September 2003


CANCUN DIARY - Reagan and Thatcher were in Cancun when John Madeley last went there more than 20 years ago and the world's poorer nations did not get much out to that meeting either.



I was last in Cancun in 1981 at a 22-nation summit of world leaders, called to advance the North-South dialogue, as it was then known. Reagan, Thatcher, Gandhi, Nyerere and Trudeau were among those present. Reagan brought his portly secretary of state Al Haig, Thatcher her suave Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.


It was, however, all very informal; some wore beach clothes and they only met for two days. On the last day, in between a five-course lunch and an evening banquet, they sandwiched in discussion about the world food problem. Nyerere of Tanzania asked for more help for his farmers, pointing to the enormous help that Western countries gave their farmers. His plea went unheard.


Last week back in Cancun again I saw the latest World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference, which had already witnessed the suicide of a desperate South Korean farmer on its very doorstep, collapse because of the failure of the 146 member countries of the WTO to reach agreement. The question of farm subsidies in the developed world and the opening of markets in the developing world still unresolved.


In the end it was the decision by one of the world's very smallest countries, Antigua and Barbuda, not to go along with the summit text that seemed to trigger collapse. It simply did not reflect their views, they said. Kenya and other African countries felt the same.


The conference chairman, the Mexican foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, said he had heard enough and declared the meeting over. The WTO works by consensus. And there was no consensus.


Developing countries had come to Cancun looking for changes in the rules to give them a fairer deal from world trade - shades of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania - and while here, they were offered nothing worthwhile. Twenty years on then and not much, it seems has changed.


There was no agreement at the talks - as before - but at least it was not the Battle of Seattle again. The Mexican authorities had thrown a double ring of steel around the conference. In Seattle, protesters were allowed within yards of the meeting hall. Not in Cancun. A good five miles from the actual conference centre, at the entrance to Cancun proper, the authorities put up tall steel barriers and no one was allowed to pass without a badge.


But just in case anyone did get any nearer, there was another ring of steel surrounding the conference centre itself. As I saw it, there was not much scope to protest. But protesters proved a canny lot.


More than a thousand non-governmental organisation workers were officially registered for the meeting. The Mexican authorities even gave them a lavish reception at a swanky hotel. And on the opening day, as the WTO director-general Panitchpakdi Supachai of Thailand spoke, about 50 people stood up the middle of the conference hall and silently held messages which read 'WTO is undemocratic, obsolete and anti-development'.



The TV cameras focused more on the protesters than the speech from the platform. The WTO's free play of the market rules are harming poor countries, the protesters said. Their message went around the world. Mr Supachai couldn't compete. On reflection quite a significant shift if not quite in power, certainly in emphasis.


Cancun, itself, however has changed. From what I saw it is a very, very different place today to the city I came to in 1981. Then there were only a dozen or so tourist hotels, now there are more than 70. But it's not just the hotels; there are now fast food chains, glitz and noise.


I met a representative of the other WTO - the World Tourism Organisation. We talked about the importance of tourism not damaging the very environment that attracts tourists in the first place. He's diplomatic of course, but can't disguise some of the uglier buildings that have gone up. Well, development has created jobs, he says, and the local people are pleased about that, he claims.


And certainly the tourists were there last week, jostling in the hotels with the WTO delegates etc, but they were off to the beach and the islands, not to chatter about trade.


It was nearly time to go home - an early morning swim in the sea and huge waves almost knock me over. At the WTO meeting poorer countries united and knocked over what they saw as attempts by the world's richer countries to further the free trade agenda. And that just could be a new wave in the international trading arena.



John Madeley is a best-selling author, journalist and broadcaster, specialising in economic and social development issues.