Act Globally

by Mary Wildfire

November 1999


"Think globally, act locally."

If you are an environmental or social justice activist, you've heard this advice countless times. Indeed, those who dig in and fight to protect their communities bring vital passion and local knowledge to their work. Nonetheless, I'm arguing here that more people are needed, especially now, to think globally and act globally. At some point most activists realize that the problems are structural, not local. One conclusion nearly everyone reaches is that no progress is possible until the campaign finance system is reformed. Unfortunately, even total reclamation of our democratic process may not bring back genuine democracy. There is a threat that our efforts may be undermined -- or should I say "overmined?"-- by lawmaking bodies on the international level whose delegations officially represent national governments but in fact represent corporations. There are a number of these; perhaps the most important is the World Trade Organization, or WTO. This article will focus on WTO exclusively, because they are going to be meeting soon on U.S. soil. Unfortunately, the location is far from here -- in Seattle, Washington, from November 30 to December 3.

Before I talk about Seattle I want to clarify what the WTO is all about. Formed in 1995 as an outgrowth of GATT, it exists to "help trade flow as freely as possible," as well as to "serve as a forum for trade negotiations" and to set up a dispute settlement process to settle claims between its 134 member nations. A look at the history of these settlements will illuminate the reality of WTO's workings, despite its occasional rhetoric about the importance of environmental protection, public health and safety standards, and so forth. U.S. beef and milk producers and Monsanto got our government to challenge a European Union ban on hormone-fed beef and milk. Despite the fact that the ban applied equally to domestic and foreign producers, and despite overwhelming public support for the ban in Europe, a three person WTO panel overturned it because, it said, there was "insufficient scientific evidence" of human health problems resulting from the use of the hormones. Therefore the European Union must overturn the ban, face major trade sanctions, or prove beyond the doubts of an unelected, unaccountable panel that the hazards are real. Note that the burden is not on industry to prove that they are safe. Also note that the proceedings are secret, that no organizations can file amicus briefs, and that there are no conflict-of-interest provisions in the selection of panelists. In fact there have been at least two cases in which panelists did have very questionable conflicts. One of these was in the tuna-dolphin case. Here it was a U.S. law that was challenged: the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  The "compromise" solution here is that starting this fall tuna caught with mile-long fishing nets among schools of dolphins can be labeled "dolphin safe."

Then there's the shrimp-turtle case. A provision of our Endangered Species Act specifies that any country selling shrimp to the U.S. must mandate the use of inexpensive turtle-excluder devices. All species of sea turtles are endangered; use of these devices had reduced the kill of sea turtles in shrimp nets from 150,000 a year to 2000 a year. The WTO panel ruled that while protecting sea turtles was all well and good, and the U.S. can keep its law, it must remove the teeth that made the law effective. The fact that the U.S. law was in accord with international environmental agreements was ignored. It appears that international accords that protect the environment are treated as so much rhetoric, while the free trade agreements that protect profits are enforced.

Other examples: one section of our Clean Air Act relating to standards for gasoline was amended after a challenge by Venezuela. We breathe dirtier air as a result but that's just too bad.

The European Union's long-standing agreement to buy a certain percentage of its bananas from its former colonies in the Caribbean was overturned after a U.S. challenge. The Caribbean producers are mostly small farmers, who only have 3% of the market anyway. They can't easily compete with the three multinationals whose huge plantations in Central and South America control the other 97%-- and who pay almost nothing to their workers. The decision is expected to cause widespread unemployment, unrest, and an increase in drug trafficking in the Caribbean. Why did our country file this appeal, given that the U.S. doesn't produce a single banana? It is widely assumed that the $100,000 given to the Clinton coffers by Carl Lindner, CEO of Chiquita, has something to do with it. This situation has been referred to as "Rent-A-Nation."

Sometimes the mere threat of WTO legal action is enough to forestall legislation. Our Environmental Protection Agency has tabled plans to ban products containing residues of Folpet, a carcinogenic fungicide, after such threats. Another example is Guatemala's Infant Health Law, which banned pictures of babies on food and formula intended for children under two. This move pleased UNICEF and reduced the infant mortality rate in Guatemala. After years in which all suppliers complied except Gerber, Guatemalan authorities were considering a ban on Gerber's products; and then Gerber got our State Department to threaten WTO action, and the Guatemalans, intimidated, decided to exempt foreign suppliers from their law. In yet another ugly example, "our" government is currently threatening action against South Africa for its practice of buying up drugs in cheaper countries for its people. It has also announced that it will be fighting any bans on genetically modified organisms.

WTO rules stipulate that for a country or region to take into account how a product was manufactured or grown is an illegal barrier to trade.  Thus we can't refuse entry to items made with child or slave labor, produced under dangerous conditions, or harvested unsustainably.

In theory, all countries have an equal voice in the World Trade Organization. But third world representatives complain that the developed countries have been doing the real negotiating during informal meetings to which the developing world is not invited; and then the results, in which they've had no input, are presented to the Third World on a take it or leave it basis.

So what are they going to be talking about in Seattle? During the Ministerial, they will be setting the agenda for talks that will go on for years at their headquarters in Geneva. Several interesting items have been proposed for this agenda.

Some countries want to introduce the MAI through WTO. I don't have room to go into detail here about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. but you might have seen the piece I had about a year ago in the Charleston Gazette and the Highlands Conservancy Voice about it; it was then being secretly negotiated through OECD. The MAI would transfer much of the remaining power of governments to corporations. One of its provisions, for example, would allow investors (corporations) to directly sue governments, in the same kind of unaccountable tribunals WTO uses, without even having to persuade a government to file the suit. Despite virtually no mention in the mainstream press, this horror was scuttled by worldwide citizen opposition (much of it through the Internet). But is it dead?

Another proposal has been labeled the Free Logging Act.  If adopted it is expected to speed up deforestation by 3 to 4%, make it harder to restrict entry to invasive forest pests, make it harder to protect local jobs by banning the export of raw logs, and probably outlaw programs that label sustainably harvested forest products or stipulate that governments buy only "green" products.

Definitely to be discussed are agricultural issues; farmers are marching in the hundreds of thousands in India, and there is unrest elsewhere over the devastation caused by globalization. Although there is little uproar here, American farmers are losing their land in droves, primarily due to monopolistic pricing practices by the big buyers. A related item is "intellectual property rights"-- including the right to patent life forms. I can't take the space to go into detail on this; suffice it to say the importance of these issues can scarcely be overstated. The WTO is not in any sense a democratic institution. The people of this country will have no voice in its deliberations, nor will any other people except corporate heads. But there will be massive citizen involvement nonetheless: environmental, labor, human rights, Third World, farmers and religious groups all have plans for this event. The International Forum on Globalization is conducting a Teach-in on November 26 and 27. Featured speakers include David Korten, Richard Grossman, Vandana Shiva, Herman Daly, Jeremy Rifkin, Lori Wallach and Jerry Mander.  There will be an international interfaith service Monday evening. On Tuesday, November 30, the AFL-CIO, in conjunction with other labor groups from all over the world, is sponsoring a huge march. There will be press conferences, puppet shows, rallies, symposia and a human chain around the convention center where the 6,000 WTO delegates will be meeting.

Useful websites for more information include,,, and WTO's official website, We must transfer legitimacy from WTO to institutions that are accountable to the world's people rather than the world's corporations. We have every right to insist on environmental safeguards, fair labor practices, and an emphasis on the reduction of poverty rather than the enhancement of wealth. But if we want these things to be more than the rhetoric of voices crying in the wilderness, we must take action! Seattle could be a crucial turning point.

See you there!


Mary Wildfire is involved in environmental issues on the state level in West Virginia, but feels that international issues are often more important and that social justice issues tie in with environmental ones. She also feels that the international solidarity felt in Seattle was tremendously exciting, and overdue. She'd like to work in/with Latin America, but has no money to travel and is only halfway to fluency in Spanish.

Mary Wildfire can be reached at