Timber barons, locked in a secret room far away from the probing eye of democracy, are dividing up what's left of the world's forests. That thought probably horrifies you. But it's only a tiny piece of the "Seattle Round" of the World Trade Organization's upcoming negotiations, beginning when trade ministers, assorted dignitaries, and corporate parasites from 135 countries descend on Seattle this fall. After December's meetings, billions of people from around the world will have good cause to curse our city's name.
What is this monster? The World Trade Organization is the all-encompassing successor to GATT and other global economic agreements. Its purpose is to eliminate tariffs and restrictions (like environmental and minimum-wage laws) that would get in the way of transnational corporations maximizing their profits. Because of its ability to supercede the laws of cities, states, and entire countries through treaty obligations, the WTO has provided a way for corporate interests to execute an end run around elected bodies that are (at least in theory) accountable to the public.
Along with those ministers and dignitaries and corporate parasites (oh my) who will negotiate over things as varied as forest products and intellectual property, the Seattle Round will bring tens of thousands of protesters from around the world to Seattle this autumn.
Last week, forest activists laid the groundwork for their protests against the WTO: They sued the feds. Enviros fear corporate predators plan to increase the use of wood products through free trade. In other words, more clear-cuts and more profits for them, more climate change and less environmental protection for the rest of us.
At the WTO, the timber giants hope to negotiate a "forest practices agreement," which will govern worldwide trade in wood products. The US will send in a team of negotiators with its demands. Trouble is, nobody concerned with the environmental and human aspects of unfettered trade is giving the US advice.
Last week, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in Seattle to stop the US Department of Commerce and the Office of the US Trade Representative from preparing for the Seattle Round. The lawsuit charges that the feds' advisory committees on the WTO are so stacked with forest industry representatives that there's literally nobody else involved. The lawsuit wants to stop the US from acting on any of the committees' recommendations until there is a more equitable balance of committee members.
"When it comes to negotiating trade agreements and developing trade policy, the administration has ignored basic democratic principles," says Patti Goldman, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.
More profits, fewer jobs
The enviros also have some allies in Congress. A letter initiated by Rep. George Miller (D-California) and signed by some 30 congressional members opposing a free-trade forestry agreement goes to President Clinton this week. "We hope that the [Clinton] administration will pursue an international trade policy that protects, rather than threatens, the world's endangered forests and United States sovereignty," the letter says pointedly.
It goes on to note one of the ironies of a forestry free trade agreement: the three- to four-percent increase in consumption of wood products (estimated by the American Forest and Paper Association) that would result. That suggests greater deforestation, in the Pacific Northwest and worldwide, without any accompanying environmental protections which might, under free trade, be struck down as unfair trade barriers. Our state's relentless free trade boosters, in Congress and elsewhere, point to the increased consumption as good for our economy and jobs, but the reduced tariffs mean that even more of our region's forests will be sent to Japan as wood chips and make it more likely that mills here will shut down. Free trade, in this case, will kill local jobs, not create them. What proponents really mean is that free trade will be a profits bonanza for important campaign contributors like Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek.
The potential consequences to the environment of the forestry agreement are global, not just local. Free trade might mean the loss of our few remaining embattled forest protection laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, which has already been overruled by the WTO in a case involving shrimp and sea turtles. But the greater consequences are in developing countries with rainforests and few environmental protections in place. The WTO's Seattle Round, if unchecked, would make it virtually impossible to stop the rapid loss of the world's rainforests, with dire implications for the world's climate and ecosystems.
The lawsuit filed last week is an attempt to force a reluctant Clinton administration to inject some criteria other than corporate profits into negotiations affecting the future of the biosphere. It may or may not succeed, but it's almost certain that on forest issues, as with biotechnology, agriculture, intellectual property, human rights, and a host of other issues up for grabs in the Seattle Round, we will earn our global notoriety with an escalating host of oppositional lawsuits, conferences, teach-ins, and street demonstrations between now and December. Few Seattle area residents realize just yet the far-reaching and ominous nature of the agreements being carved out this year by corporate representatives, far away from the probing eye of democratic accountability, under the name of our city.