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Preparing for the WTO

With just weeks to go before global trade ministers are scheduled to gather in Qatar for a World Trade Organization meeting, Premilla Dixit is laboring 16-hour days with scores of other anti-globalization activists to prepare a counter-summit in New York City.

Working on a shoestring budget from her tiny office in lower Manhattan, Dixit, 51, is busy fielding emails, faxes and phone calls to help coordinate the gathering against corporate-led globalization.

The WTO had scheduled its meeting in the far-off Middle Eastern nation to evade the street protests that have accompanied economic summits of late, but because of Qatar's proximity to the war-zone in Afghanistan, the organization may move or postpone its gathering.

In the wake of September 11, activists had decided to temper their plans. Still, Dixit and other organizers say their message will be heard: The domination of corporate power at the expense of the public interest has gone too far. Labor, environmental, student groups, as well as scores of nongovernmental organizations have joined together to prepare three days of actions in New York and around the world.

"We feel it's critical to draw attention to the quiet tragedy of what they inflict," Dixit said from her office on Bleeker Street, at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an 85-year-old group founded by Jane Addams.

By "they" Dixit means not only the WTO, the international organization founded in 1995 to regulate trade between nations, but other financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Activists say the WTO emphasizes corporate profits to the detriment of social and environmental concerns, and forces individual nations to undermine the interests of their citizens.

Modern day trade deals are no longer limited to tariffs and quotas. Today, in the name of stamping out protectionism, they affect an array of issues including public health, energy and the environment. In the United States alone, WTO rules have confounded some important environmental protections, including pollution-reduction efforts and dolphin-safe tuna fishing rules.

From South to North

For decades people in developing countries have protested IMF and World Bank "structural adjustment" programs, which forced nations to cut domestic spending and squeeze social services, ultimately increasing poverty, in order to repay their international debt. As the effect of trade rulings began to reach northern countries, the movement against corporate domination spread.

Since September 11, anti-globalization activists have been regrouping to discuss the future of the movement within the new war context.

"We are already concerned about the threats from these new definitions of terrorism, some of our friends and colleagues had already been mentioned as so-called domestic terrorist groups even before September 11th, so there is a lot of concern," said Kevin Skvorak, a New York activist with the coalition Direct Action. "There's a strong commitment that we have to continue to move ahead."

Though press coverage has portrayed the activists as young white anarchists wearing black ski masks and smashing windows, in fact the mobilization is diverse and largely peaceful. There is no one single description that fits members of this movement.

Premilla Dixit, who comes from a Hindu Indian family of professionals, says she became involved because she was incensed by racial and corporate injustice, which affected her in very personal ways.

Dixit's mother is a botanist, and her father was an agricultural geneticist. Her father developed a specific strain of basmati rice, a rice that originated on the Indian subcontinent. He named the strain he had developed for Dixit's younger sister Jaya. Today, a Texas company owns the patent to several other strains of basmati, reaping enormous profits from a rice that hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers had cultivated for centuries.

"It's totally outrageous," she said. "My father worked on basmati rice for years. He named it after his daughter not to lay exclusive claim to it, but out of the sheer joy of having created something that could feed millions. It would never have occurred to him to take out a patent."

This aspect of globalization, dubbed bio-piracy, has outraged farmers around the world. The U.S. patent system has enabled corporations to take out countless patents on animals, plants, or seeds indigenous to other nations, granting them monopolies. Each country that belongs to the WTO is forced to adhere to this patent system.

While most plant resources and other forms of biodiversity are found in developing countries, those nations claim few patents. Industrialized nations hold 97 percent of all patents worldwide, according to the United Nations Development Program.

Becoming Politicized

When Dixit was in her early 20s, she met an American in India who was part of the wave of Americans that traveled there on a spiritual quest during the '60s and '70s. "I met one of those soul-seekers, and married him," she said. She traveled to the United States with him in 1973. The marriage didn't last.

In the United States, Dixit said she went into a deep shock. She had believed the myths she'd been told about America being the land of dreams and freedoms. "I came here truly believing some of this stuff that I'd been sold," she said. "And when I came here, I found that I was, in fact, a much more liberated woman than a lot of my fellow women in the USA, and also that blacks were terribly oppressed here, and that there were incredible amounts of racial bigotry and oppression."

She fell in love with jazz music, and spent a great deal of time at jazz clubs. She befriended jazz musicians like Sun Ra, Jackie McLean and Art Blakey. She said she was upset to see that these established musicians were so strapped for money. This she interpreted as a sign of racial injustice.

"I couldn't believe that artists -- because I knew about rock music, and I knew how big and well-fed and well looked-after rock musicians were -- and I couldn't quite understand why jazz musicians were so poor," she said.

"The only connection that I was making is 'okay, racism is not over in this country,'" she said, and she was prompted to look for answers.

Several years later, her father became ill. When she returned to India, Dixit was shocked by the rapid decline of a man she recalled as robust and healthy. She became convinced her father's cancer and death was caused by the pesticides he had used in his research and fieldwork.

"At that point I just thought to myself, 'you know here's a person who abandoned his own heritage in order to embrace modern science and it killed him most cruelly.' It was simply unacceptable," she said.

"That got me looking at the deeper questions -- 'what does this globalization mean to us...? And I started looking at my own reality -- that it had dispersed my family. We were all over the world. My mother was in India. One of my sisters was in Japan, another sister was traveling in Europe and I was here in the States," she said.

Even before her father's death, Dixit had begun to shun modern medicine. "I found everything about the chemical-pharmaceutical industry obnoxious. And so I had turned to herbal medicine," she said. But when she came down with tuberculosis, she was again faced with the dominance of corporate power.

Against her will, Dixit said, she was forced to turn to modern medicine because herbalists and Chinese acupuncturists practicing in the United States, fearing lawsuits, are severely restricted.

"I was forced to go modern medicine. And it was ... every bit the nightmare that I anticipated it would be," she said.

Now, still recovering from her illness, Dixit works almost around the clock either from her home in Brooklyn, or from WILPF's one-room office, to fight what she considers globalization's destructive trends.

"I don't take home much pay and I am barely able to survive, but the work I feel is so important that I am willing to take it on," Dixit said.

Jennifer Bauduy is the associate editor at TomPaine.com.

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