RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Our Turn

I was on the road to Sylvia's house when I heard the announcement on BBC news that the WTO meeting in Cancun had broken down. The story was announced, like all BBC stories, in a clipped, breathy voice that managed to sound equally bored and insistent, as if reporting on a hurricane far away. Important to someone, yes, but it's not happening here.

Impatient with the voice's stifled yawn, I thought: Wow! This changes everything!

I found Sylvia in her front yard, checking the apple slices she'd laid out to dry on an old screen door. In her kitchen, tomatoes were bubbling on the stove, soon to be preserved in the quart jars on the counter.

If anyone lives independently from the gluttony of globalization, it's Sylvia. Her husband keeps a huge garden and orchard, and a pond stocked with fish. Sylvia works a half day each week at a resale shop, sorting donations and finding clothes for her family. She trades music lessons for the family's meat and her family's rambles are mostly within the state.

I told her about the WTO breakdown and she said, "All those rich people using the resources of the poor," and then, "Who buys that stuff anyway?"

Indeed, we know the answer to that question. We see it all around us, in the huge homes with 5-car garages taking over the farmland and the SUVs that get 9 miles per gallon.

And, in one angry action, the poorest countries of the world have pointed it out: There can be no consensus in the midst of inequity.

On Sept. 11, 2003, 100 protesters were admitted to the Cancun convention center, mourning the suicide of Lee Kyung Hae the day before. Lee's death has been called a "ritual suicide." Thus, he will stand forever as a symbol of all the farmers of the "global south," or southern hemisphere, who have killed themselves in despair as the WTO forced their economies to change to export economies rather than local economies that fed local families. Lee's death, dramatic as it was, finally focused the world's attention on the truth: globalization doesn't work for indebted governments, indebted families and traditional cultures.

At the heart of the problem is the US and EU subsidy systems which pay huge subsidies to the biggest producers. Without the subsidies, overproduction would go down and farm prices would come up. With the subsidies, farmers are paid for overproduction. It works out great for seed and chemical companies (think: Monsanto) who don't have to worry about their market disappearing.

With the subsidies, our farmers sell products on the global market at less than production prices. This works out great for food processors (think: ConAgra) who can sell cheap food at their related retailer (think: Wal-Mart).

But, for the poor farmers of the world, our subsidy program doesn't work so well because our low prices undercut foreign farmers who raised food for their communities and were once self-sufficient. In the case of Lee Kyung Hae, the problem was rice subsidies, but other farmers point to subsidized production in cotton, soybeans, corn, milk. While the US and EU tried to ignore the message of Lee's death, the protesters were insistent.

Poor countries, organized into a "Group of 21" were able to hold out on enough issues so that the WTO. adjourned until December without consensus. The Group of 21, including economic middleweights Brazil, India, China and Venezuela plus several barely solvent African and Caribbean countries have changed history. Powerless alone, they learned they have power when they work together.

Now it's up to caring Americans to carry the light. As taxpayers and consumers, we can band together and grab tremendous power through our purchases and through our government. One event after another -- take the FCC rules turnaround as an example -- has proven that activism works, even against corporate power.

Here are the issues to push: Make Congress believe that food is a homeland security issue and change the US agricultural subsidy program to reward farmers that grow for the local markets rather than export markets. Bring overproduction under control by renewing and expanding Conservation Reserve Programs to reduce the amount of land in production.

Encourage research into new forms of energy to make us less dependent on oil and coal. Make the richest Americans pay their fair share for the privilege of doing business in this nation. It's appalling that CEOs of Halliburton and Wal-Mart get tax breaks while wage workers pay for their spoils of exploitation.

On the state level, insist that your state remove corporate tax loopholes and economic development programs that encourage globalized industry in your state at the expense of local businesses. Lobby for environmental rules that discourage industrial food production, including feedlots and confined animal feeding operations.

On the local level, support your local businesses. Help find safe locations for farmer's markets. Find and tell your friends about locally-produced products like cheeses, jellies, baked goods, and even clothing and furniture. Support rehabilitation in downtowns and discourage infrastructure like highways and waterways that promote urban sprawl.

It's our turn to carry the light.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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