WTO: The real face of free trade

Feature story - December 12, 2005
HONG KONG, China — 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 attend receptions. Hong Kong is also a 'freeport' for the world's electronic waste. China is quickly becoming the world's trash bin. As much as 4,000 tonnes of toxic e-waste is discarded every hour.

Many electronic products are routinely, and often illegally, shipped from Europe, Japan and the US to China. Dumping them there is cheaper than taking proper care of them at home.

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

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle vs More, Faster, Cheaper

Governments at the WTO meeting aim to eliminate tariffs on electronic goods as part of the funnily named NAMA negotiations. NAMA stands for Non Agricultural Market Access. Most products you see in the shops are covered by these negotiations. Free trade in electronic goods will result in more electronic goods being traded. Sadly, as long as effective social and environmental regulations are missing, this will lead to 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".

Big words. But in reality, the WTO 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 used just to move goods around the world. And trade negotiators continue to ignore the environment. This is true for electronic goods and 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.  

The European 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 fuels the 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 with the NAMA negotiations in Hong Kong.

To this, Greenpeace says: STOP. Governments must halt the NAMA negotiations. Plans for liberalization of vital environmental assets, such as forests, must be abandoned. We must force governments to admit the real face of free trade 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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