| Reuters Friday September 10, 2:19 PM|
South Korean rice farmers hit the streets to blast WTO
By Cho Mee-young
SEOUL (Reuters) - With the world rice talks as a backdrop, thousands of angry farmers took to the streets on Friday to the mark the anniversary of the South Korean who stabbed himself to death shouting, "WTO kills farmers."
Lee Kyung-hae killed himself in Mexico one year ago to protest the World Trade Organisation's attempts to expose farmers to greater international competition.
South Korean rice farmers are angry at efforts under the WTO to rip down a wall of quotas protecting them from lower priced producers from around the world.
"Our position is based on martyr Lee Kyung-hae who said that agricultural products are not commercial and should be excluded in the WTO talks," Kyeong-sik Moon, president of the Korean Peasants League, told Reuters.
"Farmers want no more opening of the rice markets," said Moon, who has grown rice for more than 30 years.
In 1995, the Uruguay Round of world trade talks gave South Korea a 10-year grace period to use its rice quotas before being forced to negotiate a new tariff system with the major rice exporters.
Seoul has been in bilateral talks since May with the United States, China, Thailand, Australia, Argentina, Egypt, Canada, India and Pakistan over whether to extend the grace period with a bigger quota or switch to a tariff system in 2005.
But farmers worry any relaxation of the current protection will lead to a collapse of their way of life. Domestically produced rice costs about five times more than foreign rice.
Hundreds of local farming, religious, civic groups joined the protests under the banner, "We will keep food sovereignty and our rice".
Farmer groups say they will underline their anger by spoiling their rice crops in the field and by not releasing products to the market, as well as by refusing to pay their debts.
TALKS STALL, FARMERS SEETHE
Partly because of the pressure from farmers, South Korea's rice talks have stalled and are unlikely to be completed this month as planned. Government officials blame tough demands from the exporters for the delay.
Rice exporters are demanding Seoul raise the quotas so imports could total 8 percent of its annual rice consumption, up from the current 4 percent.
The exporting countries also want to be allowed to sell their rice directly South Korean shops, rather than mixed in with other products as currently required.
To raise competitiveness of home-grown rice, Seoul has encouraged small, unprofitable farmers to switch to other crops while getting the bigger farmers to adopt economies of scale.
But farmers disagree with what the government has done.
"Those policies are nonsense and ironical," said Moon at the peasants group. "If one farmer cultivates a large field, it will be difficult to grow high-quality grain such as organic rice."
He maintained that even if farms get bigger, they will still not be as competitive as U.S. farms.
Farmers and some member of parliament also criticised Seoul's plan to cut the price it will pay for rice by 4 percent this year. Next year they plan to determine the price without parliamentary approval.
"Farmers will be discouraged and give up farming," said Kang Ki-kab, former head of a local farmers group and a member of the Democratic Labor Party. "We will oppose it strongly."