On September 10, opening day of the Fifth Ministerial of the World Trade Organization, Lee Kyung Hae climbed the fence that separates the excluded from the included and took his life with a knife to the heart.
Lee, leader of the Korean Federation of Advanced Farmers Association, had been excluded for most of his professional life. A farmer working with farmers, he watched as hundreds of his neighbors were driven off their lands and separated from the only livelihood they knew. He spoke eloquently and passionately of the death of hope in the Korean countryside, the sense of impotence and the anger against policies that promoted imports over national production.
So Lee decided to fight that exclusion by going straight to its source. Earlier this year, he staged a one-man hunger strike in front of WTO headquarters in Geneva, in protest of the draft proposals for the Cancun meeting. He was ignored. Seven months later, he joined the march of over 15,000 farmers, indigenous people, and youth in Cancun wearing a sandwich board that read “The WTO Kills Farmers” and holding a firm conviction in his still-beating heart. When the protesters reached the point where they could go no farther, he plunged a knife into his heart and was soon pronounced dead in a Cancun hospital just miles from where WTO Ministers deliberated on how to promote the same agricultural trade that drove Lee, and hundreds more farmers in Korea, India, and other developing countries, to such a drastic end.
But it is a more fitting tribute to let Lee tell his own story, from a statement he distributed in Geneva and later minutes before his death in Cancun:
I am 56 years old, a farmer from South Korea who has strived to solve our problems with the great hope in the ways to organize farmers’ unions. But I have mostly failed, as many other farm leaders elsewhere have failed.
Soon after the Uruguay Round Agreement was sealed, we Korean farmers realized that our destinies are no longer in our own hands. We cannot seem to do anything to stop the waves that have destroyed our communities where we have been settled for hundreds of years. To make myself brave, I have tried to find the real reason and the force behind those waves. And I reached the conclusion, here in front of the gates of the WTO. I am crying out my words to you, that have for so long boiled in my body:
I ask: for whom do you negotiate now? For the people, or for yourselves? Stop basing your WTO negotiations on flawed logic and mere diplomatic gestures. Take agriculture out of the WTO system.
Since (massive importing) we small farmers have never been paid over our production costs. What would be your emotional reaction if your salary dropped to a half without understanding the reasons?
Farmers who gave up early have gone to urban slums. Others who have tried to escape from the vicious cycle have met bankruptcy due to accumulated debts. For me, I couldn’t do anything but just look around at the vacant houses, old and eroding. Once I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife. If you were me, how would you feel?
Widely paved roads lead to large apartments, buildings, and factories in Korea. Those lands paved now were mostly rice paddies built by generations over thousands of years. They provided the daily food and materials in the past. Now the ecological and hydrological functions of paddies are even more crucial. Who will protect our rural vitality, community traditions, amenities, and environment?
I believe that farmers’ situation in many other developing countries is similar. We have in common the problem of dumping, import surges, lack of government budgets, and too many people. Tariff protection would be the practical solution.
I have been so worried watching TV and hearing the news that starvation is prevalent in many Less Developed Countries, although the international price of grain is so cheap. Earning money through trade should not be their means of securing food. They need access to land and water. Charity? No! Let them work again!
My warning goes out to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation. That uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO Members are leading an undesirable globalization that is inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing, and undemocratic. It should be stopped immediately. Otherwise the false logic of neoliberalism will wipe out the diversity of global agriculture and be disastrous to all human beings.
Laura Carlsen is director of the IRC’s Americas Program. She wrote this commentary from Cancun, Mexico. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org