Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Worse than a tsunami?

It is entirely understandable that such an elemental force of nature as a giant tidal wave, ripping apart communities in south Asia and leaving a trail of death and destruction, should capture the news headlines and all of our sympathy.

But behind those headlines is another force – this one man-made – which in its own way leaves behind it a trail of death and destruction. But so slow and insidious are its effects, and so indirect, that the damage is rarely recognised and never properly calculated.

That force is the European Union – and the damage it does is the result of its predatory and destructive trade policies towards the third world. And while it may not leave piles of bloated corpses on exotic beaches, the death and destruction, in terms of poverty and the concomitant disease and ill-health is every bit as real.

Thus, while the EU doles out its conscience money it depriving Andean subsistence farmers of a chance to prosper, as well as Kenyan farmers, sugar growers and even Chinese computer-makers.

And now, according to The Guardian, it is the turn of tens of thousands of impoverished banana plantation workers and small producers in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Their livelihoods have been put at risk by planned changes to the EU's banana import regime, where the plan is to dispense with a complex system of quotas and tariffs with a single fixed rate tariff of €230 a ton by 2006, compared with the current €75.

Driven by the demands of European supermarket chains for low-priced fruit, this means that multinational corporations controlling the global market are already slashing wages, closing plantations and shifting to even lower-cost countries with a non-union culture.

This is what poverty campaigners call the "race to the bottom" and it will particularly affect Caribbean producers who supply 20 percent of the EU market. Latin American countries, which provide 60 percent, could lose a third of their exports or £400m a year and at least 75,000 jobs.

So damaging will this be that, together with its other baleful effects on fragile, third world economies, it is no exaggeration to suggest that, over the longer term, the EU is actually worse than a tsunami.

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