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Since 1st March, 1999
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Plotting trade ministers scare iguanas
- Air thick with intrigue in Cancun snakepit as rival sides cook their strategies

Cancun (Mexico), Sept. 10: When trade ministers play at being Backroom Boys crafting strategy and planning counter-moves, it ratchets up interest in the arcane, dry-as-dust area of trade policy negotiations.

It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. But the Fifth Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which formally gets under way on Wednesday, has all the makings of an elaborate chess game with strong positional play and rapid counter-strategy.

All of that was in evidence right through Tuesday and is an indication of how things will play out at the four-day event that some fear could force an extension — though one doesn’t even want to speculate about the consequences of such an unlikely event on the fragile nature of this Yucatan tourist resort that derives its name from a word in the local language that means the snakepit.

Snakepit or not (iguanas certainly abound in the mangrove swamps and jungles that surround the narrow, bustling sandbar strip which houses all the hotels here), the air was thick with intrigue as the US and the European Union struggled to find ways to drive a wedge through the Group of 21 whose ranks swelled today with Egypt coming on board as a member of the alliance that seeks to challenge the hegemony of the Big Two.

Reporters covering the WTO event got a peek-a-boo into the strategy they would adopt to break this pesky cabal of nations that could — at least as far as they are concerned — torpedo the success of this ministerial round of talks.

Pascal Lamy, EU trade commissioner, said: “It’s all about flexibility and variable alliances depending on the issues under discussion.”

The EU and the US will be hoping to harp on issues on which there are differences within the G-21 (India is a leading voice in the group) to drive home the point that these 21 developing nations could hang together if they stayed united.

Anticipating this, the G-21 attempted to present a strong and united front by asserting that agriculture would be the centrepiece of the discussions at Cancun and everything else was extraneous, as of now.

“We are sticking together and we will focus on the positive aspects of this alliance and shut out the negatives,” said Brazil’s minister for foreign affairs Celso Amorim. “We know that our unity will be sorely tested at every stage.”

The G-21 draws comfort and strength from the fact that it represents more than half the world’s population and 63 per cent of all the farmers in the world. It is also responsible for 20 per cent of the world agricultural production, 26 per cent of the world’s farm exports and 17 per cent of the world’s farm imports.

The EU-US axis and the G-21 have come up with their own postulates on the three rather shaky pillars that hold up the farm-talks edifice — market access, domestic support measures and export subsidies.

Lamy said the EU was prepared to eliminate export subsidies but there would have to be a level of reciprocity from the developing nations. He said developing nations had reached different stages of development and only the poorest of the poor nations could sue for a special dispensation that would allow them to delay tariff-reducing commitments.

The US has remained less vocal on agriculture — and has been listening carefully to what the others are saying. US trade representative Robert Zoellick indicated that if the members agreed on the procedural modalities in Cancun, they could have another ministerial meeting next March to deal with the nitty-gritty of an agreement on agriculture.

Meanwhile, the bilateral talks continue; the sherpas huddle and the backroom stratagems are constantly evolving.

I looked for the iguanas on the sandbar strip — they weren’t there. The Spanish signboard on a small, empty wire-mesh pen outside a skeletal structure of a beachfront condominium located opposite the convention centre reads: “No molestar a las Iguanas (Don’t harass the iguanas).”

Now that the world’s trade negotiators have descended on this tourist hotspot, perhaps the iguanas have fled.

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