Thursday, April 19, 2007

From small seeds do big fights grow

David Munk watches a microcosm of the WTO summit as GM advocates confront protesters with impoverished locals stuck in the middle

Guardian Unlimited

It was all going so well for Monica, Mike, Jason and Rebecca.

The truck carrying two tons of food had arrived at the little village of Valle Verde half a mile down a bumpy dirt track from the main road to Cancun and a happy band of hungry Mexicans had been there to greet them.

The students, all American, were busy shepherding their beneficiaries to the collection point and the press had turned out in force to see the act of charity.

The 'collegians' showed off their bright orange t-shirts proudly advertising the reason they were there: CFACT: The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.

On the surface the scene should have been one to celebrate. But what made this handover so different - and eventually ensured its notoriety - was that the orange-clad kids from US universities were all giving away GM food to some of the poorest people in the world.

CFACT, a right-wing American think tank that espouses free trade and bio-technology, had come to Cancun, scene of the World Trade Organisation's mammoth trade talks to make its point and to spread its message.

Along with them came a number of other like-minded groups - most of them bogey-figures for the environmental movement.

There was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a lobby group funded by some of the US's biggest corporations, which is reported to have stated "there are things more valuable than health". Joining them was the International Consumers for Civil Society and the Congress of Racial Equality. All free trade exponents, all pro GM.

In the sweltering heat of a midday Carribean sun and amid the dusty dogs and wooden shacks of Valle Verde, CFACT set out its stall.

Liberal NGOs were standing in the way of feeding the hungry mouths, claims CFACT. They were helping to exacerbate the problem of poverty not solve it.

"By opposing modern farming methods of agricultural chemicals and biotechnology, reliable energy sources like nuclear power and fossil fuels, the Greens show they do not want the poorest people of the world to ever attain a decent standard of living," said CFACT President David Rothbard in a statement handed out in the 100 degree heat.

It was then things started to go wrong.

From within the party invited to witness the GM feast unwelcome banners were unfurled. From behind wooden huts protestors arrived.

The initial shock of the US party at its act of charity being ambushed turned to anger. One ran at a large Friends of the Earth banner and tore it from its porters. Others squared up to the protestors. A shouting match began.

So it happened that in a small Mexican village 35km from the Cancun convention centre where power brokers were deciding the way the world should do business, charities and think tanks indulged in verbal slugging watched by 300 perplexed Mexican families. And in a way the events in that small space reflected the arguments that raged within the convention hall itself.

"These people are trying to stop us from feeding people" shouted one CFACT helper. "This is not their show."

Erica Rosenthal, from the US Pesticide Action Group, made no apologies for gatecrashing.

"What they want to do is push GM all over. This is just a front group for the Biotech companies. These villagers do not know the information. Of course they are happy to receive the food but do they have any idea that they are being manipulated and used by the big companies in the world?"

Maj Fiil-Flynn, from pressure group Public Citizen, said she had heard CFACT claimed they had the best interests of the villagers at heart and were committed to their wellbeing.

"They are not working with the community here. They themselves don't know who these villagers are."

And in that last part she was right.

Mary Carmen, from the Catholic organisation Fundacion Ciudad de la Algeria (Foundation for the City of Joy), which has been heavily involved with the village for a number of years, said she had not heard of CFACT until contacted by the group just last week.

"They came to us and they said to us that they can give food for the poor people. We are in favour of the poor people, we are not in favour of one argument or the other", she said.

Barun Mitra, from the Liberty Institute in Delhi, had been invited by CFACT to view the official handover and was enraged the giveaway was disrupted.

"Why cannot these people be free to decide what they want to eat. They should have that ultimate freedom. The problem is that these people (the protestors) do not want these people to decide."

Mr Mitra was asked if Monsanto was paying for the GM handout. He said he did not know. His words were drowned out by another angry exchange which had broken out between Friends of the Earth and CORE next to what looked like the village's parking lot.

Meanwhile Griselda Bahena, a 39-year-old mother of three, stood clutching her plastic sack containing a bumper pack of cornflakes, a few kilos of sugar, some cooking oil and pasta. To her the shouting was academic.

"I am very happy," she said. "I don't understand why they are angry. I am not angry. I want the food."