As you read this, trade ministers from around the world are arriving to attend the 6th Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Hong Kong. At the Hong Kong Convention Centre, beautifully situated at the Hong Kong harbour, they aim to push forward with their free trade agenda.
Not far from where the ministers are meeting, the real face of free trade reveals its ugly side. Hong Kong, shoppers’ paradise, is not just one of the world’s most free economies; it is, as a result, also a ‘freeport’ for the world’s electronic waste.
China is quickly becoming a toxic trash bin for the world. As much as 4.000 tonnes of toxic e-waste are discarded every hour. Since most mobile phones, computers and other electronic products are made using toxic ingredients, it makes it far easier (and of course, cheaper!) to dump products in developing countries instead of disposing of them appropriately at the place of origin or use. Many electronic products are routinely, and often illegally, shipped from Europe, Japan and the US to China and other Asian countries. Workers at scrap-yards such as Guiyu in China’s Guangdong province are exposed to the toxic chemicals in these products, when they break the products apart by hand, usually under appalling conditions. This is what “free trade” looks like!
In the name of free trade, some governments at the WTO Ministerial meeting aim to eliminate tariffs on electronic goods as part of the Non Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) negotiations. If the experience of the Information Technology Agreement, signed by 29 WTO Members in 1996, is anything to go by, this will inevitably result in more electronic goods being traded. Sadly, this also means that even more electronic waste will be generated. As long as effective social and environmental regulations are not in place, this will result in even more electronic waste being dumped in scrap-yards such as Guiyu.
According to its preamble, the WTO exists “to protect and preserve the environment” and to achieve “the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objectives of sustainable development”.
In reality, the WTO trade system forces countries to compete to trade more. As a result, the use of natural resources is spiralling upwards. One fifth of global oil consumption is just to move goods around the world. The current negotiations, especially the NAMA negotiations, continue to ignore the environment. This is true for electronic goods and the waste they will inevitably become. It is most shameful in case of forests, where an official sustainability impact assessment, commissioned by the European Union, shows that further liberalization under NAMA will have negative results. The study shows how free trade magnifies existing problems and fuels demand for unsustainably sourced timber. Sadly, the study does not appear to be worth the paper it is printed on; the EU government has chosen to ignore the findings of a study it commissioned. Unwilling to admit unpalatable truths, they aim to move forward with the NAMA negotiations in Hong Kong, and to agree on concrete liberalisation steps in 2006.
Instead of blindly pursuing free trade at all cost, governments should halt the NAMA negotiations. Plans for liberalisation in ecologically sensitive areas - such as trade in forest products - must be abandoned, since negative impacts are already proven.
Trade ministers face a choice as they head to Hong Kong. They can either push forward with further trade liberalisation, ignoring the negative environmental and social impacts, or they can initiate a proper review of the global trade system. A new trade system must be built on the basis of such a review: One that has equity and environmental protection at its heart – not just in its preamble.
Only if governments take this step, can the Hong Kong meeting be described as a success.
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