20,000 fishermen, farmers protest against FTA
A signature campaign in Kedah demanding that the government calls off its talks with the US on a free trade agreement (FTA) has won support from 20,000 fishermen and farmers.
The campaign, part of an on-going awareness campaign on the FTA targeting mainly the farming communities in northern Malaysia, will be submitted to premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and International Trade and Industry (Miti) Minister Rafidah Aziz.
Spearheading the campaign is the Anti-US FTA Action Committee for the Northern Region, together with several farmers’ and fishermen’s associations in Kedah and Penang, Consumers Association of Penang, environmental group Sahabat Alam Malaysia and other groups.
Basing their fears on the outcome of FTAs previously signed between the US and other countries like Mexico, they want the government to reveal the details of the agreement and their significance for the fishing and farming communities.
“We understand that about two million farmers in Mexico were forced to abandon their lands on account of its FTA with the US," the committee said.
"We also understand that eight out of every 10 (Mexican) farmers have lived in poverty since that agreement took effect,” said Che Ani Mat Zain, who heads a farmers’ committee under the Muda Agricultural Development Authority in Kedah.
Country's rice bowl
He said each of the 106,800 farmers in the state - widely considered the country's rice bowl - owns only two hectares of land. With earnings of less than RM200 a month, they count among the poorest communities in Malaysia.
“We cannot compete with Thai rice in terms of quality and price. What will happen when US farm products enter into our market?” Che Ani asked when contacted today.
Farming and environmental groups in the coalition argued that a possible reduction of import tariffs on US farm produce from the FTA would harm Malaysia's rice farmers.
"Some 296,000 farmers depend on rice for their livelihood, with 116,000 farmers exclusively involved in the cultivation of padi," they said in a statement.
"If the rice tariff goes down to zero in view of the US demands, padi farmers in the country will certainly be unable to compete with the subsidised US rice imports."
Malaysia yesterday entered into the fourth round of negotiations on the FTA with the US Trade Representative (USTR) in San Francisco.
The US and Malaysia have so far held detailed discussions on critical areas such as labour, financial services, autos and government procurement.
Both sides have exchanged initial market access offers in goods and agriculture during the last round of talks in October.
Despite calls by non-governmental organisations and opposition parties for full disclosure, the government has been mum on developments to date, although Miti has released occasional bulletins.
Silence all round
Che Ani, who is from Air Hitam in northern Kedah, said the rural community has not seen sufficient attention focused on FTA-related issues by their elected representatives.
There has been no response either to a letter sent last week to the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya, he said.
“We want Abdullah and Rafidah to openly declare their stand on the FTA and explain it to the people,” said Che Ani.
The committee also called on the government to explain how the US-Malaysia FTA would affect plans in the Ninth Malaysia Plan to increase national food security from 72 percent last year to 90 percent by 2010.
It said about 200 faxes were sent to the offices of Abdullah and Rafidah on Jan 3 by various individuals, groups, and political parties expressing opposition to the talks.
The nationwide fax campaign was organised in the wake of the government’s failure to address various concerns raised.
Malaysian farmers are already angry over tariffs on rice imports being reduced under an existing Southeast Asian regional trade deal.
"So this time, when they see that the demand of the US is really cutting the tariff until zero, I think this will ultimately jeopardise their livelihood," coalition leader Mohamad Nizam Mahshar told AFP.
Meanwhile, the Peoples Anti-USA-Malaysia FTA Coalition co-ordinator Y Kohila said a protest would be held tomorrow at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.
The group, which represents people living with Aids/HIV, said that the protest will highlight the potential impact of the FTA on those undergoing costly medical treatment.
A memorandum on the issue was sent this morning to the Prime Minister’s Department, she added.