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Preparing for the WTO

by Jennifer Bauduy, TomPaine.com Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2001 at 9:29 PM

With just weeks to go before global trade ministers are scheduled to gather in Qatar for a World Trade Organization meeting, Premilla Dixit is laboring 16-hour days with scores of other anti-globalization activists to prepare a counter-summit in New York City.

Jennifer Bauduy, TomPaine.com

October 22, 2001

With just weeks to go before global trade ministers are scheduled to gather in

Qatar for a World Trade Organization meeting, Premilla Dixit is laboring

16-hour days with scores of other anti-globalization activists to prepare a

counter-summit in New York City.

Working on a shoestring budget from her tiny office in lower Manhattan,

Dixit, 51, is busy fielding emails, faxes and phone calls to help coordinate the

gathering against corporate-led globalization.

The WTO had scheduled its meeting in the far-off Middle Eastern nation to

evade the street protests that have accompanied economic summits of late,

but because of Qatar's proximity to the war-zone in Afghanistan, the

organization may move or postpone its gathering.

In the wake of September 11, activists had decided to temper their plans. Still,

Dixit and other organizers say their message will be heard: The domination of

corporate power at the expense of the public interest has gone too far. Labor,

environmental, student groups, as well as scores of nongovernmental

organizations have joined together to prepare three days of actions in New

York and around the world.

"We feel it's critical to draw attention to the quiet tragedy of what they inflict,"

Dixit said from her office on Bleeker Street, at the Women's International

League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an 85-year-old group founded by

Jane Addams.

By "they" Dixit means not only the WTO, the international organization

founded in 1995 to regulate trade between nations, but other financial

institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Activists say the WTO emphasizes corporate profits to the detriment of social

and environmental concerns, and forces individual nations to undermine the

interests of their citizens.

Modern day trade deals are no longer limited to tariffs and quotas. Today, in

the name of stamping out protectionism, they affect an array of issues

including public health, energy and the environment. In the United States

alone, WTO rules have confounded some important environmental

protections, including pollution-reduction efforts and dolphin-safe tuna fishing

rules.

From South to North

For decades people in developing countries have protested IMF and World

Bank "structural adjustment" programs, which forced nations to cut domestic

spending and squeeze social services, ultimately increasing poverty, in order to

repay their international debt. As the effect of trade rulings began to reach

northern countries, the movement against corporate domination spread.

Since September 11, anti-globalization activists have been regrouping to

discuss the future of the movement within the new war context.

"We are already concerned about the threats from these new definitions of

terrorism, some of our friends and colleagues had already been mentioned as

so-called domestic terrorist groups even before September 11th, so there is a

lot of concern," said Kevin Skvorak, a New York activist with the coalition

Direct Action. "There's a strong commitment that we have to continue to

move ahead."

Though press coverage has portrayed the activists as young white anarchists

wearing black ski masks and smashing windows, in fact the mobilization is

diverse and largely peaceful. There is no one single description that fits

members of this movement.

Premilla Dixit, who comes from a Hindu Indian family of professionals, says

she became involved because she was incensed by racial and corporate

injustice, which affected her in very personal ways.

Dixit's mother is a botanist, and her father was an agricultural geneticist. Her

father developed a specific strain of basmati rice, a rice that originated on the

Indian subcontinent. He named the strain he had developed for Dixit's

younger sister Jaya. Today, a Texas company owns the patent to several

other strains of basmati, reaping enormous profits from a rice that hundreds of

thousands of Indian farmers had cultivated for centuries.

"It's totally outrageous," she said. "My father worked on basmati rice for

years. He named it after his daughter not to lay exclusive claim to it, but out

of the sheer joy of having created something that could feed millions. It would

never have occurred to him to take out a patent."

This aspect of globalization, dubbed bio-piracy, has outraged farmers around

the world. The U.S. patent system has enabled corporations to take out

countless patents on animals, plants, or seeds indigenous to other nations,

granting them monopolies. Each country that belongs to the WTO is forced to

adhere to this patent system.

While most plant resources and other forms of biodiversity are found in

developing countries, those nations claim few patents. Industrialized nations

hold 97 percent of all patents worldwide, according to the United Nations

Development Program.

Becoming Politicized

When Dixit was in her early 20s, she met an American in India who was part

of the wave of Americans that traveled there on a spiritual quest during the

'60s and '70s. "I met one of those soul-seekers, and married him," she said.

She traveled to the United States with him in 1973. The marriage didn't last.

In the United States, Dixit said she went into a deep shock. She had believed

the myths she'd been told about America being the land of dreams and

freedoms. "I came here truly believing some of this stuff that I'd been sold,"

she said. "And when I came here, I found that I was, in fact, a much more

liberated woman than a lot of my fellow women in the USA, and also that

blacks were terribly oppressed here, and that there were incredible amounts

of racial bigotry and oppression."

She fell in love with jazz music, and spent a great deal of time at jazz clubs.

She befriended jazz musicians like Sun Ra, Jackie McLean and Art Blakey.

She said she was upset to see that these established musicians were so

strapped for money. This she interpreted as a sign of racial injustice.

"I couldn't believe that artists -- because I knew about rock music, and I knew

how big and well-fed and well looked-after rock musicians were -- and I

couldn't quite understand why jazz musicians were so poor," she said.

"The only connection that I was making is 'okay, racism is not over in this

country,'" she said, and she was prompted to look for answers.

Several years later, her father became ill. When she returned to India, Dixit

was shocked by the rapid decline of a man she recalled as robust and healthy.

She became convinced her father's cancer and death was caused by the

pesticides he had used in his research and fieldwork.

"At that point I just thought to myself, 'you know here's a person who

abandoned his own heritage in order to embrace modern science and it killed

him most cruelly.' It was simply unacceptable," she said.

"That got me looking at the deeper questions -- 'what does this globalization

mean to us...? And I started looking at my own reality -- that it had dispersed

my family. We were all over the world. My mother was in India. One of my

sisters was in Japan, another sister was traveling in Europe and I was here in

the States," she said.

Even before her father's death, Dixit had begun to shun modern medicine. "I

found everything about the chemical-pharmaceutical industry obnoxious. And

so I had turned to herbal medicine," she said. But when she came down with

tuberculosis, she was again faced with the dominance of corporate power.

Against her will, Dixit said, she was forced to turn to modern medicine

because herbalists and Chinese acupuncturists practicing in the United States,

fearing lawsuits, are severely restricted.

"I was forced to go modern medicine. And it was ... every bit the nightmare

that I anticipated it would be," she said.

Now, still recovering from her illness, Dixit works almost around the clock

either from her home in Brooklyn, or from WILPF's one-room office, to fight

what she considers globalization's destructive trends.

"I don't take home much pay and I am barely able to survive, but the work I

feel is so important that I am willing to take it on," Dixit said.

Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.

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