WTO: The real face of free trade

Feature story - 8 December, 2005
A child sits in a mountain of electronic waste, covered in toxic chemicals, pulling apart components to retrieve tiny bits of metal; this is the face of free trade your government does not want you to see. As trade ministers from around the world arrive in Hong Kong for the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit, they claim that free trade is good for you. You will excuse this child if he disagrees.

He's not reaping the benefits of "Free Trade." He's being poisoned by what we throw away.

Hong Kong is not just the place where trade ministers attendreceptions. Hong Kong is also a 'freeport' for the world's electronicwaste. China is quickly becoming the world's trash bin. As much as4,000 tonnes of toxic e-waste is discarded every hour.

Manyelectronic products are routinely, and often illegally, shipped fromEurope, Japan and the US to China. Dumping them there is cheaper thantaking proper care of them at home.

Because our mobile phones,computers and other electronic products are made using toxicingredients, workers at yards such as in Guiyu, China, risk exposurewhen they break the products apart by hand, under appalling conditions.Guiyu is where this boy is sitting. This is what "free trade" lookslike.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle vs More, Faster, Cheaper

Governmentsat the WTO meeting aim to eliminate tariffs on electronic goods as partof the funnily named NAMA negotiations. NAMA stands for NonAgricultural Market Access. Most products you see in the shops arecovered by these negotiations. Free trade in electronic goods willresult in more electronic goods being traded. Sadly, as long aseffective social and environmental regulations are missing, this willlead to even more electronic waste being dumped in scrap-yards such asGuiyu.

According to its preamble, the WTO exists "to protectand preserve the environment" and to achieve "the optimal use of theworld's resources".

Big words. But in reality, the WTO forcescountries to compete to trade more. As a result, the use of naturalresources is spiralling upwards. One fifth of global oil consumption isused just to move goods around the world. And trade negotiatorscontinue to ignore the environment. This is true for electronic goodsand the waste they will inevitably become.

Can't see the forest?

It is most shameful in the case of forests - another "product" covered by the NAMA negotiations.  

TheEuropean Union asked a respected university to conduct a"sustainability impact assessment" of trade liberalization on forests.As we long suspected, the study shows, that trade liberalization fuelsthe destruction of the world's last remaining ancient forests. Sadly,the researchers appear to have wasted their time. Governments,unwilling to admit unpalatable truths, still aim to move forward withthe NAMA negotiations in Hong Kong.

To this, Greenpeace says:STOP. Governments must halt the NAMA negotiations. Plans forliberalization of vital environmental assets, such as forests, must beabandoned. We must force governments to admit the real face of freetrade and stop our waste being dumped on children in Guiyu.

Want to learn more?

Read the weblog of the Greenpeace team in Hong Kong

Find out Greenpeace's position on the Meeting

Read Greenpeace's report " Trading away the last ancient forests"

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