Library / 14 December 2005
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Trading in Poison
by Gerd Leipold, The Telegraph
Calcutta, 14 December 2005 – As you read this, trade ministers from around the world are attending the sixth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong to push forward with their free trade agenda.

Not far from where the ministers are meeting, the real face of free trade reveals its ugly side. Hong Kong, a shoppers’ paradise, is not just one of the world’s most free economies; it is, as a result, also a “free port” for the world’s electronic waste. China is quickly becoming a toxic trash bin for the world.

As much as 4,000 tonnes of toxic e-waste are discarded every hour. Since most mobile phones, computers and other electronic products are made using toxic ingredients, it makes it far easier (and of course, cheaper) to dump the products in developing countries instead of getting rid of them appropriately at the place of origin. Many electronic products are routinely, and often illegally, shipped from Europe, Japan and the United States of America to China, India and other developing countries. The situation is distressingly similar for workers at scrapyards such as Guiyu in China’s Guangdong province and Seelampur in India. In these, and other illegal recycling yards, workers are exposed to the toxic chemicals in electronic products, when they break them apart by hand. This is what “free trade” looks like.

In the name of free trade, some governments at the WTO ministerial meeting aim to eliminate tariffs on electronic goods as part of the Non-Agricultural Market Access negotiations. If the experience of the Information Technology Agreement, signed by 29 WTO members in 1996, is anything to go by, this will inevitably result in more electronic goods being traded. Sadly, this also means that even more electronic waste will be generated. As long as effective social and environmental regulations are not in place, this will result in the dumping of more electronic waste in scrapyards.

Act on promises

According to its preamble, the WTO exists “to protect and preserve the environment” and to achieve “the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objectives of sustainable development”.

In reality, the WTO trade system forces countries to compete to trade more. As a result, the use of natural resources is spiralling upwards. One fifth of global oil consumption is just to move goods around the world. The current negotiations, especially the NAMA negotiations, continue to ignore the environment. This is true for electronic goods and the waste they will inevitably generate. An official sustainability impact assessment, commissioned by the European Union, shows that further liberalization under NAMA will have a negative impact on forests. The study also reveals how free trade magnifies existing problems and fuels demand for unsustainably sourced timber. Sadly, the study does not appear to be worth the paper it is printed on; the EU government has chosen to ignore the findings of a study it commissioned. Unwilling to admit unpalatable truths, the members of WTO aim to move forward with the NAMA negotiations and to agree on concrete liberalization steps in 2006.

Instead of blindly pursuing free trade at all cost, governments should halt the NAMA negotiations. Plans for liberalization in ecologically sensitive areas must be abandoned. Trade ministers face a choice —they can either push forward with further trade liberalization, ignoring the negative environmental and social impacts or they can initiate a proper review of the global trade system. A new trade system must be built on the basis of such a review: one that has equity and environmental protection at its heart — not just in its preamble.

Only if governments take this step can the Hong Kong meeting be described as a success.

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