Farmer who got a hearing by paying the ultimate price
Korean who killed himself at WTO talks had written article telling of peasants' ruin
John Vidal and David Munk in Cancun
Friday September 12, 2003
Lee Kyoung-Hae had written about his plight, but few had read his words. He had protested about the way he and other peasant farmers were being bullied out of business, but felt he was being ignored.
Yesterday Lee finally got the World Trade Organisation to focus on the ruinous policies that have left farmers in his native South Korea on the brink of disaster, but it took his death - by his own hand - to turn global attention his way.
His suicide on Wednesday during a farmer's day march shocked everyone gathered in Cancun for the WTO conference. Lee had been at the head of a delegation of more than 300 Korean farmers and trade unionists marching towards the conference centre. The Koreans, disciplined and all wearing white sleeveless shirts and grey jackets, were chanting "No to WTO".
When the march reached the checkpoint that separates the luxury hotel zone where the official delegates stay from Cancun town the Koreans tried to pull the fence down. In the melee, Lee, without telling anyone or making a speech, pulled out a knife and plunged it into his heart. The cry went up for a doctor. After about 10 minutes, the crowd parted and he was carried out by six men.
An insight into what drove Lee to take his own life may be found in an article he wrote last month for the Korean AgroFood magazine.
"I am 56, a farmer from South Korea who has strived to solve our problems ... but who has mostly failed like many other farm leaders elsewhere," he said.
"Soon after the Uruguay round of the Gatt (now the WTO) was signed in 1992 [opening Korean markets to rich countries and allowing the dumping of rice and other foods] we farmers realised that our destinies were out of our hands. We could do nothing but watch our lovely rural communities being destroyed. To make myself be brave, I searched for the real reasons for this."
Lee, a former MP, concluded that WTO policies had led directly to the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of small farmers worldwide and in February this year he set up a one-man protest, living in a tent outside the WTO offices in Geneva with banners reading "WTO Kills".
"I am crying out my words to you that have boiled so long in my body," he said. "It is a fact that since the WTO agreement, we have never been paid our production costs. Sometimes prices dropped to a quarter of what they used to be. How would your emotional reaction be if your salary dropped suddenly to a half without knowing clearly the reason?"
Many Korean farmers, said Lee, had left for the urban slums. Others had accumulated huge debts. "Once I ran to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife. If you were me, how would you feel?"
Like many others in poorer countries newly opened to free trade, Lee rejected the WTO mantra that the world's peasant farmers could trade their way out of trouble. They were not able to compete with rich-country subsidies, and needed protection, he said.
"Earning money by trade is not the way [small farmers want] to secure food. My warning goes to all citizens that uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO members' officials are leading to an undesirable globalisation of inhumane, environment-distorting, farmer-killing and undemocratic [policies]. It should be stopped immediately, otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will perish the diversity of global agriculture and [bring] disaster to all."
Audio from David Munk in Cancun at guardian.co.uk/wto