AS YOU read this, trade ministers from around the world are arriving to attend the Sixth Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Hong Kong. At the Convention Centre, overlooking the city's beautiful harbour, they aim to push forward with their free trade agenda.
But not far from where the ministers are meeting, the real face of free trade reveals its ugly side. Hong Kong, a shoppers' paradise, is not just one of the world's most free economies; it is also, as a result, a `freeport' for the world's electronic waste.
China is quickly becoming a toxic trash bin for the world. As much as 4,000 tonnes of toxic e-waste are discarded every hour. Since most mobile phones, computers and other electronic products are made using toxic ingredients, it is far easier (and cheaper!) to dump products in developing countries instead of disposing of them appropriately at the place of origin or use.
Many electronic products are routinely, and often illegally, shipped from Europe, Japan and the US to China, India and other developing countries. The situation is distressingly similar for workers at scrap-yards such as Guiyu, in China's Guangdong province, and Seelampur, in East Delhi. In these, and other illegal recycling yards, workers are exposed to the toxic chemicals in electronic products, when they break them apart by hand, usually under appalling conditions.
In the name of free trade, some governments at the WTO Ministerial meeting aim to eliminate tariffs on electronic goods as part of the Non Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) negotiations. Going by the experience of the Information Technology Agreement, signed by 29 WTO members in 1996, this will inevitably result in more electronic goods being traded.
Sadly, unless effective social and environmental regulations are put in place, this will result in even more electronic waste being generated and dumped in scrap-yards.
According to its preamble, one of the objectives of the WTO is "to protect and preserve the environment" and to achieve "the optimal use of the world's resources in accordance with the objectives of sustainable development". In reality, the WTO trade system forces countries to compete and trade more. As a result, the use of natural resources is spiralling upwards.
One-fifth of global oil consumption is used just to move goods around the world. The current negotiations, especially the talks on NAMA, continue to ignore the environment. This is especially true of electronic goods and the waste they will inevitably become. It is most shameful in case of forests, where an official sustainability impact assessment, commissioned by the EU, shows that further liberalisation under NAMA will have negative results.
The study shows how free trade magnifies existing problems and fuels the demand for unsustainably sourced timber. Sadly, the study does not appear to be worth the paper it is printed on; the EU government itself has chosen to ignore the findings of a study it commissioned. Unwilling to admit unpalatable truths, EU nations aim to move forward with the NAMA negotiations in Hong Kong, and to agree on concrete liberalisation steps in 2006. Instead of blindly pursuing free trade at all cost, governments should halt the NAMA negotiations. Plans for liberalisation in ecologically sensitive areas such as trade in forest products must be abandoned, since the negative impacts have already been proved.
Trade Ministers face a choice as they head to Hong Kong. They can either push forward with further trade liberalisation, ignoring the environmental and social fallouts, or they can initiate a proper review of the global trade system.
A new trade system must be built on the basis of such a review: One that has equity and environment protection at its heart, not just in its preamble.
Only if governments move forward on this can the Hong Kong meeting be described as a success.
(The author is Greenpeace International's Executive Director. More information can be had at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/trade-and-the-environment)