WTO meeting opens in Hong Kong

Rich and poor nations were at odds as a World Trade Organization meeting opened here Tuesday, with trade ministers saying a breakthrough is unlikely on the thorny issue of agricultural trade that has held up negotiations for months. At least 1,000 protesters, mostly South Korean farmers wearing red bandanas, gathered at a downtown park to chant slogans against the WTO, driven by fears that opening up their agricultural markets would destroy their livelihoods.

Police have blocked off access to roads near the conference site, set up barricades and even glued bricks onto the sidewalks in the hopes of preventing violence that has flared at previous WTO summits. The six-day meeting was meant to lay the groundwork for a global treaty by the end of 2006 that would cut trade barriers across a wide array of sectors, from agriculture to services, wrapping up the so-called Doha round of talks.

But an impasse over farm trade has brought the negotiations to a virtual halt, with developing nations accusing the U.S., EU and other rich economies of not cutting agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies enough, keeping out exports from poorer nations that depend heavily on agriculture as an income source.

India's trade minister, who has emerged as a key figure in the talks, said that while it would be hard for 149 WTO members to reach an agreement on farm trade, he didn't foresee an outright collapse like the previous ministerial gathering in Cancun, Mexico, two years ago, which fell apart amid acrimony. Differences over agriculture was the culprit there, too.

"I don't see a repeat of Cancun," Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath told the Associated Press. "Cancun was an outburst of a lack of hope. Now countries are hoping."

Still, Nath insisted that "developing countries do not want to see the perpetuation of inequities in global trade."

He urged members to stay engaged in the negotiations, and predicted that all parties would strive to make some progress at the Dec. 13-18 gathering.

"The next six days are going to see efforts by everybody to move forward," Nath said. "But efforts do not necessarily mean there will be results, because the issues are very, very contentious." EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has said that the European Union won't change its offer of an average 46 percent cut in farm tariffs unless he sees some movement from developing nations on offering to reduce their trade barriers on manufactured goods and services.

Mandelson said that parties gathered in Hong Kong summit should try to narrow their differences so that a treaty can be completed by year's end, saying that developing nations depend on a successful round.

"Whilst we cannot solve the problems of the round in Hong Kong, Hong Kong must help us to find solutions of balance and of ambition in the endgame of the round," he said.

However, he warned against focusing too much on farm trade: "Concentrating on agriculture, important as it is, to the exclusion of other areas, will defeat that ambition."

With expectations so low, some delegates have been saying another gathering of all 149 members would be needed to hammer out "modalities," WTO jargon that refers to the specific formulas that will form the basis for a final treaty.

"This meeting has already been downgraded as a midterm stocktaking," said Mari Pangestu, Indonesia's trade minister, who heads a grouping of 45 poorer countries within the WTO. "We hope by April to reach an agreement on full modalities."

Outside the convention center, various protest groups staged demonstrations to vent their anger and concerns about the WTO and globalization, which many of them believe benefit primarily the rich and powerful.

Gathering for a march at a downtown park, farmers from South Korea, Japan, India, the Philippines and Brazil punched their fists in the air and beat drums and gongs. I.L.

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