“Speak the truth, and exclude agriculture from the WTO!” – The final testament of Lee Kyung-Hae

Lee Kyung Hae was a peasant leader from South Korea who took his life at the 2003 World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico. In the hours before he died, he handed out a leaflet, challenging the WTO. Here, in a new translation by Christine Dann and Kim Hak Mook, is the text of that leaflet. You can also download a .pdf file.

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I was born on a farm in Korea. After graduating from agricultural high school and university I became a farmer, and with my own hands I developed a dairy farm on harsh, mountainous land. I also had a small area of rice paddy land on the lowlands, which my father transferred to me. With my fellow farmers, I built a farmers’ association and I tried to contribute to my village, my community and my country, while carrying on my lovely occupation of farming.

With modest hopes and dreams of being good farmers and citizens, we worked hard from dawn to dusk. When it came to learning innovative technologies and management systems, we weren’t lazy. At first we succeeded in our goals, and re-invested the proceeds of our success in further growth. We young farmers and prospective farmers took pride in believing ourselves to be vital contributors to our country’s food security, and to the revitalisation of rural life.

But when we came aware of the possible impacts of the Uruguay Round agreement, our small, innocent hearts were plunged into a boiling pot of fear. We couldn’t sleep, and so we decided to go to Geneva and meet Mr. Arthur Dunkel, the former WTO Director General. We talked to him earnestly, but very carefully, about our difficulties. Of course, our requests were cordially rejected with diplomatic words. Our voices were so small and timid, and not capable of breaking down the great walls confronting us. At this encounter, I suddenly saw in a flight of the imagination that I was looking at a mass of my fellow farmers who were on strike in the street. Unconsciously, my hand, which was holding a knife (a Swiss Army knife, I think) was cutting my stomach. At the time I regretted this kind of impulsive and uncontrolled action.

But now I once again have the misfortune to be watching the very same situation, namely the mendacity of WTO talks which are totally closed to listening to farmers’ sufferings and warnings. What should I do?

Let me go back to the story of the situation in Korea. Our fears became reality in the marketplace. We soon realized that all our efforts could never meet the low prices of imported food. Similarly, we became aware that our farm size (1.3 ha on average) is a mere one-hundredth of the average size in the large exporting countries. Imported products were flooding the market everywhere, and we had to run from crop to crop in search of new niche markets. But almost always, we met the same friends who were producing the same crops.

It is true that the Korean agricultural reform programmes increased the productivity of individual farms. However it is also a fact that increased productivity simply added further volume to an over-supplied market in which imported goods occupied the lowest-priced portion. Since the reforms were implemented we have never been paid more than our production costs. Sometimes the price would drop suddenly, even as far as four times below the normal trend. What would your emotional reaction be if your salary was suddenly cut in half without you clearly knowing the reason for it?

The farmers who gave up farming early as a result of this situation have ended up in urban slums. Others who have tried to escape from the vicious cycle have had to face bankruptcy, due to accumulated debts. My dairy farm was closed because of my debts, and only a part of the paddy land remains. Some fortunate folk have been able to keep going, but many of them may not last much longer, I suspect. For my part, I was left living among vacant houses, ageing and eroding. All I could do was sometimes check the house of a farmer friend, hoping he could come back. Once I ran to a house where a farmer with uncontrollable debts had abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical. Again, I could do nothing except listen to the wailing of his wife. If you were me, how you feel?

At one time I became a Provincial Congressman for North Jeon-La, representing the farm sector. In this position I had many opportunities to talk with consumers’ unions. What I learned from them was that consumers want safe, good quality food (mostly good-looking food, in fact), and that they do not always welcome the imported cheap stuff. The fresh, local, unprocessed food they buy is already cheap enough to be affordable. For example, the price of one bowl of cooked rice is the same as for a pack of chewing gum; and the price of 1.75kg of tomatoes is the same as one cup of coffee, and so on. Therefore (apart from restaurant-owners and food processors) most consumers want their food to be safe, which means free from pesticides, dioxin, microbial agents, BSE, GMOs and other sources of contamination.

All right! We went back to our farms, cut back our sleeping hours, and put more time and money into producing safe food. But sad to say the consumers can not tell the safe foods from the unsafe ones unless they are packed distinctively and labelled with big characters. Beef has been the worst example of this simply because we can’t do labelling on meats. In the Seoul metropolitan area, where about a quarter of the Korean population resides, new food outlets are mainly restaurants and fast-food chains, especially in the crowded places. Consumers there are putting convenience before safety. So who should take responsibility for keeping our food safe?

If you walk into Korean rural villages, the first things you are likely to see are ruined structures – mostly livestock shelters and glass houses – which once swallowed up a huge amount of money. If you go into some of the houses, you will probably meet only meet elderly people, most of whom are suffering from illness. The only rural ‘amenity’ you are likely to see at a glance is the road you are running your car on. Because nowadays wide and well-paved roads, and big apartment blocks and factories, cover the paddy fields that were built by generations over thousands of years. These paddies provided all the daily necessities – both food and materials – in the past. This is happening even though the ecological and hydrological functions of the paddies are even more crucial today than they were in the past. In this situation, who will take care of our rural vitality, community traditions, amenities and environment?

I don’t have much time to discuss farmers’ rights to develop and save seeds, and the issues related to the WTO’s Intellectual Property Agreement on Life Forms. But I will say that one huge source of regret must be that Korea sold its six major domestic seed companies to the multinationals on the recommendation of IMF at the time of the financial crisis of 1998. So now who will protect our genetic heritage?

Thanks to assistance from a farmers’ union, I have had the chance to travel abroad to see how farmers outside Korea are doing as far as their competitiveness goes, or at least their survival. It was good to see that European Union farmers retain their pride in keeping their community setting, and their local foods, traditional heritage and culture. Seeing their strong feelings with regard to social responsibility, solidarity, and strong social supports (including support from the government), I became aware that they would not give up tilling their lands easily. So far they are efficient enough to manage small-sized farms with limited family labour. But without the supports, they may not be able to continue farming, and will have to turn to tourism. The difficulties the small farmers in Europe experience are similar to those in Korea.

Farmers in the U.S have bigger farms and seem more viable, but carry bigger risks in other ways. While they want to export more, they are always worried about possible bankruptcy. I wondered why they were not so happy with their big farms and good machines. Many of them told me that in a situation where prices keep dropping, they can barely take a salary from their agricultural labours, no matter what the statistics say about ever-increasing exports. Besides, the stomachs of our business partners (the grain dealers, agro-industries, processors, etc.) are becoming bigger and bigger, they said. In conclusion, they told me that many farmers in the U.S. will face bankruptcy soon, if no additional subsidies are made available, due to their inability to pay the interests on the loans they have taken out in order to increase their size and inputs…..

….. In many developing countries, I believe that the farmers’ situation is similar to that in Korea, although there may be different sources for the internal problems. However the problems of trade dumping, deficient government budgets, and over-population all seem be common. For these countries, tariff protection is a practical solution. I have been so upset when watching the TV news to see that starvation is prevalent in many Less Developed Countries, even though the international price of grains is so low. Earning money through trade is not the way to secure food for these people. Securing access to land and water resources is the way, I think. Charity? No! Let them work again!

At the time when I was president of the board of the Farmers-Fishers newspaper in Korea I spent a lot of time discussing what was happening around the WTO and its negotiations with civil society organisations, government officials, and others. From my observations there, and especially in regard to what I learned about the behind-the-scenes stories of the Seattle Ministerial and the arm-twisting going on at Doha, I saw gloomy times ahead for farmers in Korea and the rest of the world. Today, I once again see the same game-playing in Mr. Harbinson’s text. It feels no different to what went on in the Uruguay Round – cheating by the big exporting developed countries.

My warning goes to all citizens that human beings are now in an endangered situation. Uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO members are leading an undesirable globalisation of inhumane, environment-degrading, farmer-killing, undemocratic practices. This should be stopped immediately. Otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will destroy the diversity of global agriculture and bring disaster to all human beings.

I am saying definitively – the Uruguay Round was the fraudulent gambling party of an ambitious group of politicians trying to push their problems on to other countries, with the aid of the multinational corporations and some one-eyed academics. Now it’s time to speak the truth; to go back to the start and to exclude agriculture from WTO.

Protest Letter presented in March 2003, during Mr. Lee Kyung-Hae’s hunger strike at the WTO front gate – (translated 15 March 2003). A website memorial has been created by KOPA and the KSP Solidarity. You may visit it and leave a message at http://nowto.jinbo.net