The Mirage of Market Access

Many southern countries were originally persuaded to join the WTO and to open their markets to foreign imports because of the promise that northern countries would do likewise, in a fair exchange. The promise of market access was tantalizing because many developing economies are focused on agricultural production. However, southern countries have actually opened markets more deeply and in more sectors than countries in the North, which have maintained barriers to key export products from developing countries. Combined with the technological advantages and greater wealth and subsidies already enjoyed by northern agricultural producers, this has led to even greater imbalance in the system. Subsidized northern imports have destroyed rural communities and self-sufficient livelihoods throughout the South. Many people now working for poverty wages as Nike subcontractors are refugees from formerly self-sufficient farming regions and communities.

Some developing country governments, along with many global civil society groups, argue that southern countries must have market access, as promised, to level the playing field. But others believe that the entire export model is doomed because it moves production away from basic self-sufficient traditional farming, making all farmers vulnerable to the whims of the global marketplace which is increasingly controlled by mammoth corporations. Many believe that food security is best achieved by growing diverse crops locally for local consumption, instead of relying on food imports.

These divergent viewpoints have led to a partial rift among civil society movements, depending upon whether one feels the situation is now so desperate that market access can provide the only quick fix, or whether one takes a longer view toward a paradigm of community self-sufficiency. Still, most activists who advocate for agricultural self-sufficiency acknowledge that in the short term, many southern nations remain dependent on agricultural exports to the North. Hence, they recognize that transition strategies are needed to help nations that often feel trapped in colonial trade patterns to shift toward greater food security and self-sufficiency. One proposed short-term solution would be to grant immediate market access for key crops important to short-term economic needs in the South. The question remains as to whether export-oriented growth in agriculture actually does benefit farm economies among developing countries. Some indicators seem to indicate otherwise, and that the "market access theory" could be wrong. Consider the following:

Developing Country Indicators

❖ An estimated 43 percent of the rural population of Thailand continues to live below the poverty line even though agricultural exports grew an astounding 65 percent between 1985 and 1995.

❖ In Bolivia, by 1990, following half a decade of the most spectacular agricultural export growth in its history, 95 percent of the rural population earned less than a dollar a day.5

❖ It is estimated that over 350,000 rice and corn farmer livelihoods in developing countries are being destroyed due to a conversion of acreage devoted to cut flowers for export to western markets.6

❖ In Brazil, during the 1970s, agricultural exports, particularly soybeans, enjoyed a huge boost. Yet, hunger spread from one-third of the population in the 1960s to two-thirds by the early 1980s. In the '90s, when Brazil became the world's third largest agricultural exporter, the per capita production of rice, a basic staple of the Brazilian diet, fell by 18 percent. (Rice growing land was converted to soybean production, largely exported to Japan and Europe for livestock feed.)7

❖ The Chinese government estimates that 10 million farmers will be displaced by China's implementation of WTO agriculture rules. (Another 200 million Chinese peasant farmers are estimated to also lose livelihoods as a result of other implementations of trade liberalization and agriculture industrialization.)8

❖ Kenya was self sufficient in food until the 1980s; it now imports 80 percent of its food, while, preposterously, 80 percent of its exports are also agricultural.9

❖ In Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Zaire, which account for 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a 33 percent decline in cereal output per capita and 20 percent decline in overall food per capita in less than a decade. At the same time, all these countries saw rising agricultural exports per capita along with declining food output, and food consumption per capita.10

❖ India spent 1.37 billion rupees as foreign exchange for promoting floriculture exports, while a mere 0.32 billion rupees were earned. Export earnings from floriculture are only sufficient for India to buy one-fourth the food it could have grown.11

Such figures call into question whether "market access" or economic liberalization are panaceas for long-term development goals of the global South.

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