WTO Kills Farmers:
In Memory of Lee Kyung Hae
By Laura Carlsen
16 September, 2003
September 10, opening day of the Fifth Ministerial of the World Trade
Organization, Lee Kyung Hae climbed the fence that separates the excluded
from the included and took his life with a knife to the heart.
Lee, leader of the
Korean Federation of Advanced Farmers Association, had been excluded
for most of his professional life. A farmer working with farmers, he
watched as hundreds of his neighbors were driven off their lands and
separated from the only livelihood they knew. He spoke eloquently and
passionately of the death of hope in the Korean countryside, the sense
of impotence and the anger against policies that promoted imports over
So Lee decided to
fight that exclusion by going straight to its source. Earlier this year,
he staged a one-man hunger strike in front of WTO headquarters in Geneva,
in protest of the draft proposals for the Cancun meeting. He was ignored.
Seven months later, he joined the march of over 15,000 farmers, indigenous
people, and youth in Cancun wearing a sandwich board that read "The
WTO Kills Farmers" and holding a firm conviction in his still-beating
heart. When the protesters reached the point where they could go no
farther, he plunged a knife into his heart and was soon pronounced dead
in a Cancun hospital just miles from where WTO Ministers deliberated
on how to promote the same agricultural trade that drove Lee, and hundreds
more farmers in Korea, India, and other developing countries, to such
a drastic end.
But it is a more
fitting tribute to let Lee tell his own story, from a statement he distributed
in Geneva and later minutes before his death in Cancun:
I am 56 years old,
a farmer from South Korea who has strived to solve our problems with
the great hope in the ways to organize farmers' unions. But I have mostly
failed, as many other farm leaders elsewhere have failed.
Soon after the Uruguay
Round Agreement was sealed, we Korean farmers realized that our destinies
are no longer in our own hands. We cannot seem to do anything to stop
the waves that have destroyed our communities where we have been settled
for hundreds of years. To make myself brave, I have tried to find the
real reason and the force behind those waves. And I reached the conclusion,
here in front of the gates of the WTO. I am crying out my words to you,
that have for so long boiled in my body:
I ask: for whom do you negotiate now? For the people, or for yourselves?
Stop basing your WTO negotiations on flawed logic and mere diplomatic
Take agriculture out of the WTO system.
Since (massive importing) we small farmers have never been paid over
our production costs. What would be your emotional reaction if your
salary dropped to a half without understanding the reasons?
Farmers who gave
up early have gone to urban slums. Others who have tried to escape from
the vicious cycle have met bankruptcy due to accumulated debts. For
me, I couldn't do anything but just look around at the vacant houses,
old and eroding. Once I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his
life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts.
I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife. If you were
me, how would you feel?
Widely paved roads
lead to large apartments, buildings, and factories in Korea. Those lands
paved now were mostly rice paddies built by generations over thousands
of years. They provided the daily food and materials in the past. Now
the ecological and hydrological functions of paddies are even more crucial.
Who will protect our rural vitality, community traditions, amenities,
I believe that farmers'
situation in many other developing countries is similar. We have in
common the problem of dumping, import surges, lack of government budgets,
and too many people. Tariff protection would be the practical solution.
I have been so worried
watching TV and hearing the news that starvation is prevalent in many
Less Developed Countries, although the international price of grain
is so cheap. Earning money through trade should not be their means of
securing food. They need access to land and water. Charity? No! Let
them work again!
My warning goes
out to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation.
That uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big
WTO Members are leading an undesirable globalization that is inhumane,
environmentally degrading, farmer-killing, and undemocratic. It should
be stopped immediately. Otherwise the false logic of neoliberalism will
wipe out the diversity of global agriculture and be disastrous to all
of the IRC's Americas Program. She wrote this commentary from Cancun,