Monday, April 03, 2006

Not enough madness

Attended this small forum on the WTO and local fisheries last Wednesday. Representatives of other nongovernmental organizations were also there, including member organizations of this local coalition working on fisheries reform. A colleague shared some of the discussion points in a civil society meeting held earlier in Bangkok. It was a fairly simple and straightforward presentation. WTO, trade and other macroeconomic issues could really give an ordinary citizen in a not so poor country like the Philippines (just found out that the UNDP has recently placed the country in the medium development bracket along with Malaysia, Thailand, China, Vietnam and Indonesia) a terrible case of migraine. Actually had some qualms about attending as I was not so knowledgeable on trade and fishery issues.

The ensuing discussion among these local "experts" on the WTO and trade issues was however enlightening. Not only for the new information it provided, but also for the insights it yielded on what some development workers in the country are thinking. For one, I learned that some of these local NGOs were advocating to maintain the country's policy flexibility ("water level" in the experts' lingo) in terms of setting tariffs on so-called "non-agricultural commodities" like fish and marine products. I thought such call made a lot of sense considering that the WTO negotiations were trying to force countries to peg permanent tariff levels as a prelude to a completely unrestricted global market.

At this point, a representative from the country office of an international donor agency asked the group for ideas on how the country could better maximize whatever policy space it could gain from the WTO negotiations. This question, according to her, should be tied up with the group's vision for the fisheries sector: is the future going to be a "network" of small, sustainable, community-managed marine protected areas?; should the country take up again the expansion of its own aquaculture sector that promises quick cash but entails clearing of its remaining mangrove areas?; and what of those big commercial fishers?; how could such trade flexibility be used to support local efforts at sustainable management of marine resources?

For a few seconds, only the humming of the air conditioner could be heard in the room. Brains that were previously reciting technical arguments on why WTO and trade liberalization are the bane of the livelihood and self-reliant existence of small producers and poor people all over the world were suddenly left wondering whether they should get that extra cup of caffeine or just let drowsiness take over. A few finally found comfort in the old reliable lines of thought and continued their critical or sarcastic tirades against global bullies and their local stooges. My own gray matter was busy processing a new information: some local activists have an overdeveloped faculty for seeing what's wrong with their world, and display an almost total lack of capacity for imagining what they want to create in its place.

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