Ten years ago yesterday (September 10, 2003) Lee Kyung-Hae, a well-educated, once highly-successful South Korean farmer -- marched with 15,000 other farmers and indigenous people from around the world at the 5th WTO Ministerial at Cancun, Mexico, demanding the exclusion of agriculture from WTO. He carried a board declaring “WTO kills farmers”.

At the police barricade separating the conference venue from the public, he publicly committed suicide -- according to spot rumour. But did he really? It was highly unlikely as his daughter was getting married shortly; he hardly wanted to make her unhappy, especially since his wife died a decade earlier. In the crowd, nobody actually saw him stabbing himself, but as he climbed down from atop the barricade, a film camera captured another pair of hands, and the right hand is seen stabbing him in the heart. – It looked more like murder.

Significantly, the mainstream media ignored it, and his death was officially ruled as suicide. -- WTO could not stomach a murder in its name. He died a few hours later in surgery, only 56 years old. His banner -- "WTO Kills Farmers” – turned out self-fulfilling.

Lee came from a wealthy family of landowners and rice traders. But while his siblings went into profitable urban businesses, he went to Seoul agricultural university to become a professional farmer, something few graduates did in those days. He loved the land and always dreamed of reviving his depressed farming hometown of 30,000 farm families, where the mountainous terrain was tough.

His dairy and vegetable farm was so successful, he turned his 70-acre farm into a teaching college to enable live-in students obtain hands-on experience not available in cities. With WTO looming, he turned activist and was elected to various farmers and agricultural associations. Throughout the 1980s he worked for farmers and fisherfolk rights nationwide. In 1989, he received FAO’s award for ‘Farmer of the Year’. In the 1990s, he politicized farmers’ struggles, started a social activist magazine for farmers and was elected three times over to the provincial legislature. Lee led some thirty protests and hunger strikes against WTO.

The 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), drawn up by USA, which became the crippling WTO agreement in 1995, can be defined as a forcibly continued legitimization of all the liberties the former colonizers took with former colonies. – To enter where they wanted, taking whatever they wanted, on their own terms. That included whether other countries wanted or needed their products or not, whether their investments undermined local production and livelihoods or not, whether they destroyed economies or not.

For whatever reasons – pressure or false promises of wealth -- most governments sold out on sovereignty and the public interest.

When the WTO formally came into being despite global farmer and labour protests – except in sleepy Pakistan -- Lee and his fellow farmers realized their destinies were lost. They could only watch helplessly as rural communities were destroyed.

In a final interview, Lee noted that increased productivity simply added to an over-supplied market that now included imported goods, cheaper than the local, so they couldn’t cover their own production costs, let alone compete. “How would you feel,” he asked, “if your salary suddenly dropped to half without understanding the reason?” Pakistanis may recall the consequences when Chinese goods flooded our markets.

What is it about WTO agricultural rules that earned the ire of rural people globally, spawning the millions-strong Via Campesina and other farmer movements everywhere? Contrary to widespread belief, WTO was a corporate initiative – all private sector and all-American -- not of governments.

Throughout the history of the world, it has always been given that because we have to eat to live, access to nature from which alone food is obtained, was everyone’s fundamental right. Kings and other rulers always protected their country’s agriculture, taken responsibility for maintaining infrastructure, waived debts during natural disasters causing crop failure. After all, non-farming cities and production demand continuous supply; nor could armies fight on an empty stomach.

The productivity and continuity of nature depends on many factors working complementarily and inseparably together as a unit – the soil, water, air, climate, highly diverse vegetation, wildlife and micro-organisms, so that the concept of community lands – the Commons – was upheld for common purposes such as grazing, and among indigenous peoples that rejected private property. Monopolies, especially of lands, forests and water bodies, which deprived large numbers, were frowned upon.

WTO turned all that around on its head. Its underlying premise is that food should be treated like any other good or commodity, to be bought and sold at will, not an intrinsic right. It should be subject to globalization and market forces as are machinery, cars and thousands of other consumer items. No protectionism for food security. Why? -- Essentially because the Americans say so. Today food is no longer a right any more than the means of obtaining it. No equal rights and opportunities. Double standards too: USA and Europe may subsidize, developing countries may not. Never mind sovereignty; some countries have even bent their constitutions.

Today’s urbanites and governments forget that farming is not only self-employment, it is also a chosen way of life for many, educated or not. Countless people want control over their own lives that it enables, reject the stress of endless competition and materialism, and seek the slower pace, peace and introspection of country life. WTO has killed the right and access to such choice.

When the Korean government opened the market to imports of Australian cows, it encouraged farmers to take loans to expand their stocks. They ended up selling dozens of cows every month to make interest payments. Finally beef prices simply collapsed. Lee had expanded his herd of 70 to 300 with loans, which lost value. When he had no more cattle left to sell, the banks repossessed his land. For the first time, his family saw him weep. He and others were doing perfectly well …. until WTO bulldozed in.

There are thousands, millions, of such instances of once-prosperous lives and local economies ruined by WTO, ignored by the mainstream media. To this day, we still don’t know who in his warped wisdom, signed the 1000-odd page WTO agreement on Pakistan’s behalf, without public information or parliamentary debate, sneaked in just as structural adjustment was. 

Agriculture is just one of many areas that WTO preys on. Most people remain ignorant of its fine print. They only know its taken away our economic sovereignty and handed it over to global multinational corporations and food-speculating banksters.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.