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Impacts of WTO On The Environment,
Cultures and Indigenous Peoples

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Director, TEBTEBBA FOUNDATION (Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy Research and Education), e-mail: And Convenor of the Asia Indigenous Women's Network (AIWN) e-mail:

Presented at the "HUMAN FACE OF TRADE: HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT" PEOPLES' TRIBUNAL, 29 Nov. 1999, United Methodist Church, Seattle,Washington, USA

Esteemed Members of the Tribunal and All the Participants in this Peoples' Tribunal

          My name is Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and I am an Igorot, a group of almost 1.2 million indigenous peoples in the Cordillera Region of the Philippines. I am here to present to you today some of the impacts of the WTO on our environment and our cultures. I am the Director of the TEBTEBBA FOUNDATION, (Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy Research and Education). In the past two years we have been actively involved in documenting the impacts of trade liberalization, the WTO Agreements and other regional trade agreements on indigenous peoples. Therefore, I will not just focus on the impacts on the Igorots but on indigenous peoples in general.

          Before I go into the cases, I would like to start by saying that the whole philosophy underpinning the WTO Agreements and all regional agreements like NAFTA, MERCOSUR, etc. contradicts indigenous peoples' worldviews, concepts and practices related to environment, trade, and development, the way we regard and use knowledge, and our core values and spirituality. The principles and policies they promote such as trade liberalization, export-oriented development, trade barriers, leveling the playing field, comparative advantage, most-favoured nation and national treatment, and worst, the patenting of lifeforms are antithetical to most of our core-values and beliefs.

          Trade liberalization and the push for the removal of so-called `trade barriers' has led many governments to change national laws controlling entry of imports, liberalization of investment laws, and to create legislation on intellectual property rights which protect the most powerful pharmaceutical, biotechnology, seed, and electronic corporations.

          My first case is on the agriculture liberalization which is pushed by Agreement on Agriculture of the WTO. The removal of import controls and tariffs on the entry of cheap agricultural products has undermined indigenous subsistence agriculture and led to the bankruptcy of small-scale indigenous farmers. This is pushing them to abandon their organic and low-impact agricultural practices and shift to high-chemical input, commercial cash-crop production. To add insult to injury, those who were pushed to shift to the production of so-called `high-value, globally competitive' crops, could not even rely on any support and protection anymore since these are considered trade barriers.

          In the Philippines, for example, many indigenous farmers who have been raising potatoes for decades, ended up bankrupt because of the importation of cheap, sliced, ready-to-fry potatoes. Small-scale fruit producers cannot compete with the cheap apples, oranges, and grapes coming from Washington, New Zealand and Australia. Small-scale poultry raisers closed shop because of the entry of cheap imported dressed chicken from chicken factories from the industrialized world. The production of chicken dung used as organic fertilizers has dropped significantly. This is pushing indigenous farmers to buy and use toxic chemical fertilizers which are hazardous to the environment and to health.

          For many indigenous peoples, not only in the Philippines, but more especially for those found in industrialized countries, the production and consumption of traditional foods which are most appropriate for the bodies and constituency of indigenous peoples is also undermined. This has lead to the increasing incidence of diseases such as diabetes, kidney diseases, hypertension and heart diseases because of the dumping of junk food and cheap imported food into indigenous peoples communities. Furthermore, it has lead to food insecurity.

          The destruction of the traditional lifestyles of indigenous peoples because of the appropriation of their lands and resources, has resulted not only in the degradation of the environment but also in ill health, and high levels of stress manifested in alcoholism and suicides. This is a conclusion reached in the "International Consultation of the World Health Organization with Indigenous Peoples"[i] which was just held last week in Geneva.

          The second case is on the issue of liberalization of investments. While this is not directly related to any WTO Agreement at present, the proposals for the New Round of the WTO which includes investments will facilitate this further. The present trend of deregulating national investment laws has come about through World Bank and IMF impostions to countries which are heavily indebted. For them to be able to access more loans they have to liberalize their import and investment laws. The World Bank and IMF have laid the groundwork for liberalization and deregulation and the WTO is completing the task of removing all barriers to investments.

          The liberalization of investment laws, like the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, has allowed for the entry of foreign mining corporations. They are allowed to lease lands for 75 years, are given the right to evict peoples from these mineral lands, and have full rights to the water. They can also repatriate 100% of the profits. Indigenous peoples who were not successful in resisting the entry of these mines, now find themselves displaced and the use of open-pit mining methods is destroying their lands and polluting the seas and rivers.

          Oil exploration has also wreaked havoc to the lives and territories of indigenous peoples in Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and in Nigeria. The case of the U'wa peoples in Colombia whose lands have been ravaged by Occidental Petroleum is a case in point. An environmental study of their Cano Limon oilfield shows that around 5.5 barrels of oil are dumped into the nearby lakes every day. [ii]

          The third case is on the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) of the WTO, particularly Article 27.3.b. This is another agreement which is already having impacts on us. While it is still going to be implemented in the year 2000 by developing country members of the WTO, the theft and patenting of many of our biogenetic resources are already taking place. Some plants discovered, nurtured and used by indigenous peoples for medicine, food, and sacred rituals, in various parts of the world are already patented.

          Examples of these are the quinoa, ayahuasca, sangre de drago, used by the indigenous peoples in the Andes and Amazon, kava, used by the Pacific indigenous peoples, the barbasco or cunani (Clibadium sylvestre) used by the indigenous peoples in the Amazon for animal poison [iii] and sambong, lagundi, and ampalaya (bitter gourd) used by the indigenous peoples in the Philippines. The patents for these are found in industrialized countries like the United States, and Japan, Great Britain.

          The patenting of these plants will not only deprive the indigenous peoples of using these plants, themselves, in the future, but harvesting will be more aggressive which can lead to the further loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, the knowledge on the use of these plants which has been handed down through generations and which has been developed collectively, is appropriated already by the corporations. Their intellectual property rights claim over these will prevent others from using these materials, parts of them , or even the processes, which indigenous peoples themselves have first developed.

          I can go on citing more examples but because of time constraints, I will just conclude by asking questions.

  1. Since the rationale of the Agriculture Agreement is based on the open international trade in the agriculture sector and the implication is that each country must import its agricultural products from those that produce it more cheaply, the questions are :

    • Is it moral to subsume and force all agricultural production to fall within this framework even if most of the agricultural activity of majority of the world's peoples including indigenous peoples is in subsistence, non-commercial, small-scale production?

    • Should indigenous peoples be pushed to abandon their traditional sustainable use of their lands, allow their ancestral lands to be converted into commercial plantations, forget their indigenous agriculture and resource management practices and their production of their traditional foods because they have to live within this framework?

    • Will it not matter that millions of people engaged in traditional agriculture activities will be displaced, because they simply could not compete in the international market?

  2. With regards to the liberalization of investments, the questions are:

    • Is the principle of leveling the playing field in investments right when there are still enormous inequalities between countries and between peoples within a country?

    • Why should a country or a transnational corporation which has enriched itself several times over because of its long history of colonizing peoples and other countries, have equal rights to exploit natural resources with those it has victimized and oppressed?

    • Is it right that foreign companies can easily transfer their operations to countries where strict environmental standards and rights of indigenous peoples to their territories and resources are not respected?

  3. Finally, on the TRIPS Agreement, the questions are:

    • Should the patenting of life-forms and the appropriation of indigenous knowledge be legitimized by the WTO?

    • Is the distinction between micro-organisms and plants and animals, and between biological and non-biological and micro-biological processes in Article 27.3.b of TRIPS right and moral? For indigenous peoples all life forms and life-creating processes are sacred and should not be the subject of private property ownership rights.

          Esteemed members of the Tribunal, I submit that the WTO Agreements I cited, are creating more inequalities between peoples and countries, it further discriminates against indigenous peoples, and it destroys the environment, destroys biological and cultural diversity, and threatens the health of indigenous peoples. I, therefore, propose the following:

  1. That a thorough assessment and review of the social and environmental impacts of these agreements be done.

  2. That after such review there should be proposals on what should be changed and removed.

  3. That there should be no further round called during this ministerial meeting because peoples and countries are reeling from the disastrous effects of the present agreements.

  4. Finally, there should be a paradigm shift from the dominant development and trade model being pushed by WTO which will acknowledge and allow indigenous practices and models of development and governance to flourish.

  1. The author was present in this meeting and these were the conclusions reached by the consultation. Erica-Irene Daes, the Chairperson of the Consultation, also presented a paper presenting the same findings.

  2. Freitas, Terry, 1998, Blood of Our Mother, U'wa People, Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian Oil Industry, Project Underground, Berkeley, CA. p. 19

  3. Malanes, Maurice, 1999, Robbing the Third World, Indigenous Perspectives, Vol. 11, No. 1, Tebtebba Foundation, Baguio City, Philippines

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