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“Global Pillage: The Roots of Today’s Free Trade System”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Written by Scott Gilbert

On Tuesday February 13th, Asad Ismi, writer on international politics and author of the CD and radio documentary “Building a Just World: Fair Trade, Ethical Trade”, spoke to students about the roots of the free trade system that exists today. Ismi’s radio documentary has been played on over 14 radio stations, and has sold 108 copies so far.

Ismi started by saying that his talk would focus on the first episode of the documentary, “Global Pillage”. This section of “Building a Just World” looks at the origins and the basis of our free trade system. According to Ismi, we cannot understand fair trade unless we understand the nature of the free trade system that exists today.

“We do not live in a world economy; we live in the ruins of a world economy,” says Ismi. He goes on saying that we are not in a post-colonial period, as we can see by the invasion of Iraq and Somalia. That the western nations act like a global mafia, imposing a criminal economic system on the world and furthermore, western nations have built their economies on the ruin of the world economy. Compared to 20 per cent of the world that lives in prosperity, 80 per cent of the world’s economy is in ruin.

We can trace the free trade system back to 1450, to the beginning of the slave trade. During the slave trade 500,000,000 Africans died and Ismi noted that for every slave exported from Africa, five died. The west became the richest agricultural economy in the world, but only by having free labour in their fields and 450 years of free labour allowed western economies to build to an unprecedented point of power. “Free trade is not free—it cost the Africans two to three generations of young African labour that could have helped build their own economy,” said Ismi. He continued to say that “[the system] is not trade either—it is just taking the labour of the African economy by force—it is only free for the European powers”.

Glasgow and Liverpool were also built by the slave trade—slaves from the Caribbean came over to work in the sugar trade. The Congo is rolling in riches and was therefore colonized. The Congo went to King Leopold of Belgium—it became his country, and he did what he wanted with it. From 1885-1960, ten million died in the Congo because they had to work so hard collecting rubber for Leopold and half the population of the Congo was wiped out in order to set up the free trade system in Africa.

According to Ismi, in 1960, the CIA, allowing the U.S. to impose a new President after killing the Congolese leader. Ismi made it clear that the basis of the capitalist and free trade system is that others are being killed and plundered. Half of the 700 million people in Africa are below the UN-set poverty line of $1/day. The Africans are made to fight with each other and countries around them, which leads to the selling of natural resources for whatever price is available to them, in order to buy arms from the West. These genocidal activities have killed more than 26 million Africans since 1945.

Genocide is combined with colonialism and drug trafficking to set up the free trade system in Asia. The opium wars that took place between Britain and China were because the British wanted to export opium to China in return for tea and spices; they would rather do this than trade with riches such as gold. China realized the addictive nature of opium and declined the offer, which led to Britain threatening them with war. Those who imposed the war were titled “her Majesty’s drug traffickers”. The only choice for China at the time was death or drug addiction and after Britain imposed the drugs on the Chinese, China ended up with 13.5 million drug addicts.

Furthermore, the British takeover of India was disastrous since they stopped the clothing export and instead wanted India to export their cotton to Britain.Between 17 and 20 million people died from 1876-1880, which is equal to a holocaust every year because of British imperialism. Yet, as Ismi points out, we never hear the word 'holocaust' when it comes to British imperialism.

China was stagnated for 93 years under foreign domination and oppression. Only with the communists were they able to kick out western domination, in 1949.

The role of genocide is extreme when you look at the Americas. The British powers imposed free trade by almost completely wiping out the local population, almost 70 million of them. In North America, about 16 million natives were killed, accounting for almost 97 per cent of the Native population. The Spanish Conquest killed 23 million in Mexico and Ismi notes that even for himself, when it comes to genocide, the “level of cruelty is difficult to explain”. The attitude of the Spanish that took over Mexico was that everything in those lands was considered property of the Spanish; those who were not killed were enslaved.

The entire free trade system slowly becomes integrated. The Africans worked the sugar and mine plantations, and the wealth was taken to Europe. Ships bringing in Africans take sugar, cotton, coffee and tobacco with them to Europe. According to Ismi, “this is literally free trade to the Europeans, as they pay nothing and are getting free labour and goods.” The Native population is wiped out and the population present is enslaved.

For more than five centuries, the people of Asia, Africa, China and Latin America have been suffering at the hands of the free trade system. This is the context that we should look at fair trade in. “Fair trade is a chance to redress five hundred years of plunder and is one of the first attempts to truly create a world economy,” notes Ismi. Economies need to allow people to at least maintain a decent standard of living, not force them into plunder and pillage.

Fair trade allows consumers in the west the chance to connect with farmers in the South who sell so many of their products. Many of these items that were pillaged and taken from the South are now being sold for a fair price, which allows farmers producers, and communities to receive a fair pay for their products. This allows for them to set the platform for new schools, Medicare and decent standards of living for their communities. Though it is still quite small, the fair trade market is expanding by 55 per cent a year. It does not yet account for a huge amount of the market, but fair trade is growing at a very fast rate. The prospect of a more egalitarian world is now something that we can contribute to.

Ismi noted the importance of consumers asking at stores and distributors in order to push companies toward expanding the fair trade market, when certain products cannot be found. The fair trade market in England and Europe is even bigger than in North America and is expanding at a faster rate. By having fair trade, we are contradicting centuries of plunder and genocide.

There is of course, Ismi notes, the danger of cooptation, meaning that corporations will co-opt fair trade in order to hit a niche market, but carry on with the free trade system. Many companies are incorporating fair trade into their market, and are causing for the effectiveness of it to be lost.

Ismi stresses the words of John Lennon who said, “give them enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves”. Corporations don’t care if hitting a certain market will hurt them; if they can make money, then they will do it. We as consumers have a responsibility to encourage this, which will cause the corporations to undermine themselves.

Ismi closed by saying that “fair trade has opened a new door and a new window to establish different relationships with communities all over the world.”

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