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Swiss farmers join WTO protest march

The Norwegian farmers cross the Swiss border

(Keystone)

Swiss farmers have joined their Norwegian counterparts in Basel on the final leg of a protest march against global trade-liberalisation talks.

The protestors will stop in the federal capital, Bern, on Saturday before making their way to Geneva for a demonstration outside the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The march began in mid-June when a group of 20 Norwegian farmers set off from the city of Trondheim on a 2,000km journey across Europe to the WTO headquarters.

The Swiss Farmers’ Union said it had decided to join the last stage of the protest as a sign of "solidarity" and "shared determination" to defend agricultural subsidies.

"We are supporting the steps being taken by our Norwegian colleagues because we share the same concerns about the threat to our future," Jacques Bourgeois, director of the Farmers’ Union, told swissinfo.

Farmers have expressed concern that Switzerland is coming under increasing international pressure to tear down agricultural import and export barriers and reduce subsidies to those who work in the sector.

This week’s protest comes as WTO member states try to unblock the stalled Doha Round of trade-liberalisation negotiations ahead of a make-or-break conference in Hong Kong at the end of the year.

At a ministerial meeting in China last week, Swiss Economics Minister Joseph Deiss said he was prepared to make concessions in the field of agriculture as long as the country "got something in return".

Focus on Geneva

The march to Geneva has been timed to coincide with the next round of trade talks, due to take place at the WTO in the last week of July.

Luzius Wasescha, chief Swiss negotiator at the WTO, told swissinfo last week that Switzerland was trying to find a balance between trade liberalisation and agricultural reform.

But Bourgeois said his union remained sceptical about whether the Swiss government was acting in the interests of the country’s farmers.

He added that the march to Geneva would be used to highlight concerns about the future of the country’s agricultural sector.

On their way to the WTO headquarters Swiss farmers will stop in Bern to deliver a petition with a list of their demands.

"The most important demand we are making on the government... is that it should not concede too much when it comes to opening our domestic market, because it’s clear that we [as a small country] will never be able to compete with major agricultural exporters such as the United States and Brazil," said Bourgeois.

Fears rise

According to Bourgeois, Swiss farmers are "more concerned than ever" about the threat to subsidies following the recent round of talks in China.

"We are extremely worried about what happened at those talks... because it seems that we are moving towards making even more concessions than we had previously feared."

Developing countries are demanding that rich nations drop subsidies worth around $350 billion (SFr452 billion) a year so they can gain more access to global markets.

Farmers from several nations which heavily subsidise agricultural production – including Switzerland, Norway and Japan – say they will use next week’s demonstration in Geneva to put pressure on their governments to maintain the status quo.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The current round of trade talks was launched in Doha, Qatar in 2001.
WTO member states are trying to negotiate a treaty on cutting subsidies, tariffs and other barriers to global commerce.
The aim is to conclude years of negotiations and strike a deal at a WTO conference in Hong Kong in December.

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In brief

Norwegian farmers are marching across Europe to protest against WTO agricultural negotiations.

On Wednesday, they arrived in Switzerland and are expected at the WTO headquarters in Geneva next week.

From July 27 to 29 around 40 NGOs and unions will demonstrate in Geneva against plans to liberalise agriculture.

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