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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3

Free trade: Bill Clinton’s epiphany

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former president Bill Clinton shocked many by saying, “Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to… I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.” Many farmers in Arkansas would refute the idea that these policies were so beneficial to them, but at least Clinton has acknowledged that current trade policies are problematic.

Later, responding to a reporter’s question, he expanded on the topic: “I just think that, you know, there’s a movement all around the world now… starting in 1981, the wealthy agricultural producing countries genuinely believed that they and the emerging agricultural powers in Brazil and Argentina … they really believed for 20 years that if you moved agricultural production there and then facilitated its introduction into poorer places, you would free those places to get aid to skip agricultural development and go straight into an industrial era.”

“And it’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. And you just can’t take the food chain out of production. And it also undermines a lot of the culture, the fabric of life, the sense of self-determination. And I have been involved for several years in agricultural products, principally in Rwanda, Malawi, other places in Africa, and now increasingly in Latin America, and I see this. So we genuinely thought we were helping Haiti when we restored President Aristide, made a commitment to help rebuild the infrastructure through the Army Corps of Engineers there, and do a lot of other things. And we made this devil’s bargain on rice. And it wasn’t the right thing to do. We should have continued to work to help them be self-sufficient in agriculture… that’s a lot of what we’re doing now. We’re thinking about how can we get the coffee production up, how can we get other kinds of—the mango production up—we had an announcement on that yesterday—the avocados, lots of other things.”

This was a strong confirmation of what many organizations, including the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, have for years warned would be the results of the “free trade” paradigm. While it is good that Clinton recognizes his role and that of the U.S. in worsening conditions in Haiti, he still misses the point by pointing to increased coffee and mango production – crops for exports – as a solution.

An alliance of Haitian farmer groups has identified different solutions. They want to grow food to feed the Haitian people before moving into export crops. Most importantly, they call for food sovereignty for Haiti: the right of a people to grow and consume its own food. They call for land reform with technical support to help farmers stay on the land. They also call for the decentralization of public services that today are almost exclusively available in the capital Port-au-Prince, technical training in sustainable, ecological farming methods, credit to help buy equipment, and support with storage, marketing, and water management. Finally, because most of Haiti’s seed stocks have been used to feed people after the earthquake, they need seeds, insisting that they not be genetically modified. As one farmer said, “If people start sending hybrid [and/or] GMO seeds, that’s the end of Haitian agriculture.”

While President Clinton’s statements show that he finally recognizes the destructive nature of “free trade” agreements, it is clear that he still has not taken the demands of farmers to heart, but still focuses on export-oriented agriculture as a solution. His efforts to help bring about a “Green Revolution” in Africa also show that he does not share the concerns about GMO technology that farmers there have expressed.

Fortunately, President Clinton is not the only politician who has identified the problems with current trade agreements. The TRADE Act, a bill that aims to radically shift U.S. trade policy, has over 140 cosponsors in the House and has set the agenda for a new trade model. Perhaps, President Clinton, with his newfound concerns about trade, could be a champion of this important piece of legislation.

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