GENEVA (B)--Farmers' leaders from the Cairns Group of exporting nations expressed frustration and disappointment with progress in agricultural talks at the World Trade Organization on Oct. 16. However, they acknowledged the WTO negotiations were the only way of breaking open new export markets for their products and leveling distortions in global farm subsidies.

"Levels of frustration among farmers have reached an historic high," said Ian Donges, president of Australia's National Farmers' Federation (NFF).

"We need to have these negotiations (at the WTO) seriously start and conclude within a three-year timeframe," he added.

"Trade in agricultural products is so distorted that nobody's winning at the moment."

"The position is intolerable," Donges said. "The WTO is the only international body that can resolve this issue for us."

Coming straight from talks in Banff, Canada, a group of farmers' leaders from the 18-strong group of Cairns Group nations met with WTO director general Mike Moore and European Union ambassadors on Oct. 16. Representing Paraguay, South Africa and Australia, the three leaders said they hoped real progress could be made in 2001 and backed their governments' plans to attack export and domestic subsidies as well as improve market access by reforming tariff structures.

However, the farmers fear the WTO negotiations may take many years, or even a decade to resolve.

"We cannot wait that long," said the Paraguayan farmers' vice-president Massimo Coda.

Nevertheless, Egypt has shown encouraging signs of pioneering an alliance between net food importing countries in Africa and the Cairns Group, so adding weight to the Cairns argument in negotiations, said Donges. Many of the Cairns Group members are developing countries.

The Egyptian government offered in Banff to host a meeting between farm leaders from the interested nations which could lead to a more powerful alliance at the WTO against the subsidies paid by the EU, United States and others to support their farmers, said the leaders.

The farm leaders also rejected calls by the European Union for the role of environmental or animal welfare support to the agricultural sector to be recognized in WTO negotiations.

"Poverty is the biggest enemy of the environment," said Hans van der Merwe, deputy director of the South African union. "We should start with the welfare of people," he added, by ensuring fair access to farm markets.

The EU has said it is only willing to discuss further cuts to export subsidies on condition that State Trading Enterprises, used by Cairns members Canada, New Zealand and Australia, are included in reductions.

"We will talk about our ant-hill when you are prepared to discuss your mountain-range," said Brendan Stewart of Australia's NFF and director of the Australian wheat Board (AWB) Ltd.

Farmers in Europe and the United States face financial crises, but "if their support structure was working," added Stewart, "they would not be going broke. Clearly the support is not hitting the target."

The Cairns Group has called for a 50% "downpayment" or cut to domestic and export subsidies from the first year of implementing a new agreement.

The Cairns Group's 18 members, led by Australia, are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay.

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