STONY POINT, NY. -- Leaders of International ecumenical groups gathered with over 100 church and grassroots organizations for a North American consultation in Stony Point, NY, to discuss trade agreements and alternatives to globalization, Jan. 11-14.
The consultation, entitled “Just trade agreements? Churches in North America discuss globalization,” was sponsored by the Education and Advocacy Program of Church World Service and by the Canadian Council of Churches as a “joint ecumenical process for clarification and critique of policies as they exist and for the offering of alternatives”.
Other ecumenical bodies represented include the World Council of Churches, the World Association of Reformed Churches, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, and the Lutheran World Federation.
The keynote speaker, M. Douglas Meeks, an economics author and professor at Vanderbilt University, urged churches to speak concretely about God, justice and peace. Entitled, “God, globalization and free trade: for whose good?” the address noted that God’s economy is about the way God redeems the world,
Participants from Mexico, Canada and the US touched on experiences related to industry take-overs, free trade and price depression, in candid reports on what globalization looks like in North America.
“What we see in Mexico is poverty and loss of the country’s economy,” said Dora Esther Davila Cordillera of the Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos. She noted that the Mexican economy has grown less than one percent since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Factories are being moved in-country in order to pay lower wages but even so, contracts are being lost to Asian markets, where workers receive even lower hourly wages. Most social services have been taken away, including health and schooling, she reported.
Maria Riley, O.P., from the Center of Concern in the US, commented on the undemocratic nature of how regional trade policy is negotiated: “NAFTA dissembled defined policies that were important to the people, such as health and the environment,” she said.
“Canada’s economic dependence on the US has gone from 30 to 60%," said John Dillon from KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives. "So," he noted, his country "makes an effort not to upset the US, but to harmonize with its policies on immigration and refugees and militarization." For Dillon, “just trade” must incorporate a right to development.
Alvaro Salgado Ramirez from the Centro Nacional de Aydua a las Misiones Indigenas reported that corn from the US was brought to Mexico, replacing a 9,000-year-old seed line and bringing contamination and allergies. Not only is the population losing its right to the seeds it has farmed for centuries, but it now depends on those who provide the new seed. Corn, the national staple, is now private property and royalties are charged for a gene, Ramirez explained.
Representing the Independent Farmworker Center in New York state, Aspacio Alcantara reported that ninety percent of the agricultural workers in the state are economic refugees from Mexico. The Center works for justice, dignity and respect of these notoriously exploited workers, who have no right to insurance, organization or overtime.
“Behind these trade agreements are people,” said Lina Aresteo from a Mexican union of women textile workers. The union is campaigning for amendments to the Textile Labelling Act so that US consumers will know where products are made and can assess the likelihood that they are made in sweatshops.
From the Presbyterian Church (USA) Agricultural Missions, Stephen Bartlett warned that “Suicide is the number one cause of death among US farmers, along with cancer, from the pesticides. Of every ten former dairy farmers in Wisconsin, only one is now still producing milk because of depressed prices.”
The consultation penned a document on “Fair and just trade” and a plan of action, to be released next week.
The North American consultation follows five others, ending the series of six discussions of “spiritual resistance” to the “engine of growth.” The first convention was held in 1999 in Asia, and subsequent consultations took place in Central and Eastern Europe and the South Pacific in 2001, in Western Europe in 2002, and in Latin America in 2003. Representatives from the earlier consultations reported to the North American gathering.