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Rural Women speak against WTO in Hong Kong, December 15 2005

The statement of WTO's director, Pascal Lamy at the opening of the Ministerial Meeting here in Hong Kong, that the WTO needs to build a better image is obliquely an admission of its failure to improve the lives of the people of the world as it had promised to do.   But women from Asia Pacific gathered for the people's actions against this global trade regime don't need such a statement to prove their suffering. What differs is the degree of devastation depending on how early their national governments have entered into WTO.

In yesterday's opening of the Asia Pacific Women's Village at Victoria Park, and during the Talanoa event, the voices of Asian women against WTO were consolidated.  

Talanoa is a Fiji term which means story-telling. This event launched the patches of women's resistance, a collection of women's slogans against the WTO which were sewn together resulting in a huge quilt of patches of resistance. The collective sewing of the patches symbolized the building of a stronger unity among Asian women, specifically rural and indigenous women, to resist the WTO and be recognized of their right to land and food and against all forms of violence including hunger and poverty. The patches will be marched by women delegates towards the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in the afternoon of December 16 after a Women's Tribunal against WTO.

Bearing in mind that more than 60% of food production in the Asia-Pacific region is carried out by women, we were given opportunities to hear first hand experiences of how agricultural and trade liberalisation have impacted rural and indigenous women. The common denominator is that the last ten years of WTO's existence has only meant deeper hunger and poverty to many rural women. More and more rural women are subjected to various forms of violence as they are pushed to take up low-paying jobs as farm workers and farmhands of rich land owners, take up low-paying menial jobs, forced to give sexual favors in exchange of rice to eat for the next meal and out-migrate even to foreign lands just to be assured of survival.  

Vernie Yocogan-Diano, a Cordillera indigenous peasant woman from the Philippines, shared about the bankruptcy of peasant families engaged in commercial vegetable and rice production in the Cordillera. This is primarily due to the continuous entry of cheap imported rice and vegetables, very small agricultural subsidies for agriculture by government and the expensive cost of production shouldered by peasants themselves. From 2000-2002 alone, imported rice was priced at P9.00 per kilo while locally produced rice was priced at P17.00 per kilo. Imported vegetables had an average price of P7.62 per kilo while locally produced vegetables were priced at P30.00 a kilo. From 2001-2002 alone, vegetable production declined from 35-65% because of the competition with imports.   This situation is also becoming a common phenomenon among peasant women raising garlic and chilli in Ban Mai Khi in Chiang Mai , Thailand .

M. Ravathi of the Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers Trust shared of the alarming increase of suicide cases by farmers in 6 southern states of India because of bankruptcy in their production and the high cost of living. Ravathi mentioned that from 1998-2005, 25,000 of suicide cases were documented which is still a conservative figure as many suicide cases remain undocumented. Within the same period, she reported 24,000 cases of starvation deaths and again unreported deaths make the real figure much higher. Women take on the burden in raising their families if their husbands commit suicide. According to her, women are subjected to sexual violence when they become farm workers of landlords and in the process of migration hoping to find a better livelihood.

Yeni Rosa of the Serikat Perempuan Mandiri, a women's organization in Indonesia shared a similar situation of rural women in Indonesia who are forced to migrate and work abroad because agricultural production has become expensive and peasant women are unable to recoup their expenses because their products are fetching a low prices in the market. In Hong Kong alone, around 100,000 women from Indonesia are working as domestic workers, most of which experience discrimination in wages and ill treatment by their employers.

Carmen Buena, a peasant woman from Pampanga, Philippines and chairperson of Amihan, a national federation of peasant women in the Philippines shared that more and more women peasants become victims of sexual violence as poor peasant women or farm workers are forced to give sexual favours in exchange of a ganta. of rice ( 2.2 kgs). 

Hearing such stories one after another have fuelled our anger and created stronger resolve for the Asia Pacific women delegates belonging to the network of the Asia-Pacific Women, Law and Development (APWLD) to demand the WTO to get out of agriculture and of our lives. We are convinced that this global trade regime is only pushing women to slavery.

The Talanoa among Asia Pacific women will continue throughout the Peoples Action Week and strong cases against the WTO will be presented in tomorrow's Women's Tribunal on the WTO.


CARMEN BUENA, PHILIPPINES

Carmen Buena is the national chairperson of the AMIHAN, National Federation of Peasant Women in the Philippines. Carmen is 60 years old, has 5 children, 2 girls and 3 boys. She comes from a village called Sepung Ilog in the province of Pampanga, in the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Carmen is a landless rice and vegetable farmer. The two hectare land she and her family has been working on, is owned by a usurer in her village. She normally remit to this land owner 50% of the net earnings in the farm. She also doesn’t have a capital for farming. To raise the money needed for the rice production inputs such as fertilizer, fuel for extracting water underground for irrigation, she gets loans from loan sharks at 8-10% monthly interest. To top it all, the production inputs is getting higher each planting season. This is because the government is no longer giving subsidy to farmers as dictated by the WTO, of which the Philippine is a member.

She is a typical woman farmer, who has to fulfill the combined responsibility of working long hours in the farm, while at the same fulfilling her role as a mother and attending to household chores. At times, when income from farming gets scarce, she has to allot more hours for income generating activities such as cooking food which she sells around her village. On the average, she spends 18-20 hours each day, fulfilling all these responsibilities.

Recently, the usurer/land owner took back the 2 hectare land from her, on ground that the income from the land is too smaller and smaller each year. This made her life more difficult more than ever.

PONTAMMA - KERALA, INDIA

Since the government of India joined the WTO in 1995, Kerala has been one of the areas in India most negatively impacted by the introduced trade policies.

Pontamma is a tea plantation worker, and also a trade union leader from Idukki district in Kerala, South India. She has been working in the plantation for the last 33 years.  She has four children.

She says that since 1990, situations in the tea industry have changed. Around 500,000 people are employed in the tea plantations in Kerala. Out of this around 80% of these are women.  Since 1997-98 many of the tea plantations started closing down their industry.  In Pontamma’s area, forty companies are now closed and thousands of workers are displaced. It is mainly because of dumping of tea from outside and it has created problems for the marketing of local tea. Since 1991, their salary is coming down and work is increasing. Management is introducing mechanisation, which again displaces women.

As well as plantation workers, many small farmers are also suffering from trade liberalisation.  Kerela’s economy used to depend largely on the export of agricultural products like spices, tea, coffee and cashew nuts, as well as fisheries.  Domestic markets supported those producers cultivating rice, vegetables and fruits.  These small farmers have been badly hit by the unrestricted import of all these products and the resulting fall in price for local produce.  The cost of inputs also increased, leading to greater farmer debt.  Coffee and pepper farmers have stopped harvesting their produce since they are not able to meet even the harvesting costs.  These factors have lead to an explosion in farmer suicides in Kerala.  About 1600 farmers have committed suicide in Kerala since 2001.  Pontamma says that suicides were virtually unknown in the community, and this shows how demoralised farmers are without getting any support and without understanding the policy changes that have lead to their situations.   

Pontamma explains that right now the people living in Kerala are not getting any support, either from the management of the plantations or from the government. They do not get any water, electricity. They have had to stop sending their children to school.  People are dying of starvation and diseases as they cannot afford food or medicines.  Many have migrated to the cities, especially women, causing social disintegration in their local communities.  Up to 40,000 tribal people from Wyanad district alone have had to migrate to cities, where they face exploitation and poor working conditions.   

Privatisation of the public sector and commodification of basic resources like water are the next biggest threats to people in Kerala.  People are fighting, but are confused due to lack of transparency in the process. Once famous for quality education and health care, Kerala is getting ready to open up its doors to the private sector, both national and international.

Ordinary people including the educated sector are not even able to understand and adjust to the changes. The sudden withdrawal of public support services is killing them one by one.

Yesi Hildayani-bs, Indonesia

In 1981 an English company took land from farming communities in the Bulukumba area of Indonesia. Yesi’s family was one of them. This commercial takeover of the land was supported by the Indonesian government and military. People were forcibly moved out of the villages and violence was used by the military. People were scared of violent tactics used by the military and moved out of the land. They had families to feed and had to make a living by alternate means.

The company and military resorted to more violence in 1994, when the communities demanded their land back and their rights. It was during this time that the women were subjected to sexual violence by both the people backed by the company and the military.

What did Yesi and her community do:
Women’s groups tried to gain support from Bulukumba (local community) for a united voice to fight the military and the company together. Again they experienced more violence and terror- even death since 1994.

People from Bulukumba, on 21 July 2003, in another unified effort tried to reclaim their land and faced the military. Tragically three (3) people including one (1) woman died in the encounter. The body of the woman has not been recovered after the incident.

Land was given back to the people by the government in 1999. However this joy was short lived and the company took it back in 2002. More terror tactics were employed by the military in 2005, in its effort to squash the people’s demands and rights.

Yesi’s message:
That the government should be for the people of its country, it should be more responsible to its people and to ensure that the rights of its people is guaranteed. The government should not be swayed by multinational companies for profit. And that their should not be any more violence (used by the military and companies) in dealing with agrarian conflicts.