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The Natural and Developing World and Global Free Trade New Scientist Sep 95

Catastrophe could follow if globalists undermine the right of national states to their own regional autonomy

COULD the drive for global free trade cause countries as large as India to slide into bloody civil strife and environmental catastrophe? Vandana Shiva, a biodiversity adviser to the Indian government, but a particle physicist by training, strongly opposes unfettered global trade. She warns of the disastrous consequences for her country and others if the "new globalists", as she likes to call them, are allowed to foist pro-trade rules willy-nilly on all nations, without due respect for their impact on social, economic and ecological stability. In 1993, Shiva won the Right Livelihood Award, the so-called "alternative Nobel Prize" awarded by the Swedish parliament for promoting conservation. Recently she visited London to further the cause of traditional farming methods and preserve biodiversity. Environmental and social catastrophes will follow, says Shiva, if the globalists undermine the right of nation states to manage their own affairs and retain laws which suit local cultures and traditions. And nowhere, she claims, will the impact be as dramatic as in India, where three-quarters of the population depend on subsistence farming. The farmers on which they depend could lose their livelihoods and land under a tidal wave of Western technology. Shiva says the era of globalisation was born on 1 January, when the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT) came into force, laying down a new set of ground rules for free trade. At the same time, the World Trade Organisation was created to ensure that governments enacted the GAIT rules in their domestic legislation. Together, GATT and the World Bank are spearheading the globalist movement. Shiva wants them to act with greater sensitivity to local needs. Her main concem is that if India were to adopt all the GART ground rules it would allow multinational seed and agrochemicals companies to undermine traditional agriculture. They could sell inappropriate Western-style agricultural products and technologies to India's subsistence farmers-a quarter of the world's subsistence farmers.

The damage could be exacerbated, Shiva believes, if India adopts GATT rules on patents, reversing current laws that forbid the patenting of plants and seeds. Traditionally, farmers grow plants from the seeds they have saved from the previous season. But if patents were allowed on seeds and the practice of "saving seeds" was outlawed, companies could push farmers over the edge by charging them exorbitant prices for this practice. If multinationals were allowed to trade freely, she suggests, farmers would not be satisfied just to grow enough to live on, as they do now. instead, she hes will says, they would be encour aged by the availability of he new seed varieties and yield-raising technologies to sell all they grow and out compete their neighbours. e the And all in the name of free trade that ultimately benetion fits the shareholders of com panies based on the other (inage side of the world. These companies will not be affairs, obliged to clear up the social mess that results. Another of her worries is that the disruption of sustainable patterns of farming will destroy ecological diversity as a result of monoculture. "It's an explosive situation," says Shiva. "For if farmers are pushed out and lose their land and livelihoods, it will increase the capacity for ethnic conflict and civil unrest. India could become a massive version of Rwanda or Somalia." While admitting that she has no hard evidence to support her claims, she believes that if globalists get their way, up to half of India's farmers would be dispossessed. Once farmers have forsaken their traditional varieties for those foisted on them by persuasive marketing executives, she asserts, they will become locked into a cycle of debt, credit and dependence on inputs not available locally, such as irrigation and fertilisers. She cites cases where local communities have successfully opposed projects proposed by multinationals, and says these are warnings that they ignore local culture at their peril. It is easy to dismiss Shiva's claims as scaremongering. Surely invest ment by multinationals in develop ing countries can only be a good thing, both for economic develop ment and for job creation? But investment will not be such a good thing if it destroys more local jobs than it creates, or if it erodes ways of life that promote social stability and environmental stewardship. Shiva's concerns about what is happening in India echo disquiet expressed elsewhere, even in industrialised countries, at the growing power of multinationals and the new credo of global competitiveness. Already, she says, Indian farmers have shown their determination to blunt the advance of multinationals. In 1992, for example, they protested successfully in Karnataka against the introduction of hybrid seeds by Cargill, one of the world's largest seed growers. Similarly, Du Pont burnt its fingers trying to build a nylon plant in Goa, and protests have jeopardised approval of the so-called Dabhol power project in Maharashtra backed by the US-based multinationals Enron, General Electric and Bechtel. Globalisation could also undermine the ability of a nation and its communities to manage their own affairs. Multinationals control more money than most individual nation states. But unlike democratic governments, which in theory are elected to promote the wellbeing of the entire population, multinationals only exist to promote the wellbeing of their shareholders. Any benefits for humankind are purely incidental. So Shiva may have a point when she fears that the multinationals cannot be trusted to safeguard the long-term interests of Indian farmers, or of the ecological diversity they uphold, if these interests clash with their own mission to make monley. Of course, one could dismiss her apocalyptic vision as based purely on conjecture, but there is a message here that Western businesses should take on board. Because of their undisputed economic and technological power, companies should begin contemplating roles and missions in life that go beyond shareholder satisfaction. No one would deny that competition between companies is fiercer than ever before, but the present struggle for economic survival should not stop the globalisers from thinking ahead, maybe to a postcompetitive world and a wider role for multinationals that places social responsibility on a par with responsibility to shareholders. Shiva says she was encouraged to find that the World Trade Organisation is beginning to take such ideas seriously. Certainly, there will be few business opportunities in countries devastated by civil war, or by social collapse, save those for mercenaries and arms dealers. "Think of India reduced to a Rwanda," she says. "What will the companies sell then?"