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TPP talks come to Hawaii

TPP negotiators will be on Maui at the end of the month, hoping to bring the deal to a conclusion: What history will be made?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a massive international treaty being negotiated, in secret, by 12 Pacific Rim countries, side-by-side with 500 corporate advisers. After five years, they are aiming to wrap-up the deal on Maui at the end of this month. Meetings with Chief Negotiators begin July 24, followed by what they hope will be the final Trade Ministers meeting from July 28-31. Both the Westin and Hyatt Regency in Lahaina are reportedly hosting the meetings. Hawaii has been a favorite location for several of these high-security meetings because it is geographically isolated, seemingly far away from mass protests that might disrupt their agenda.

The TPP (and its parallel TTIP Atlantic-version and TISA services agreement) aims to lock-in policies that make it easier for the most dominant corporations and banks (mostly monopolies) to rake in profits, and harder for people and democratic governments to decide their own fate in relation to those forces, or to hold them accountable for their actions. It amounts to more regulation protecting the profits and “property rights” of the mega-rich, and less protections for people, workers, the environment, and smaller businesses. The TPP has been described as a “corporate power grab,” a “neoliberal assault,” “a Trojan horse in the global race to the bottom,” “an agreement for the 1%,” a “backdoor” for laws that can’t pass democratically, and a “Christmas wish list for corporations.” It is all of those things.

The TPP is also an attempt by the American state and American capital to assert dominance against the rising economic power and influence of China and the BRICS partners. Rather than strive for a more humane future of greater global cooperation, the U.S. is gripping at hegemony. It’s a decaying imperial game, largely played out since the end of World War II through economic institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO, trade agreements, etc.) that compel global participation on a chess board already structured to keep benefits flowing in particular directions. In this regard, the wider aims of the TPP are also inseparable from America’s “Pacific Pivot” and militarization.

The potential implications of the TPP are nothing less than violent and murderous. Its doctrines and aims are similar, but even more extensive, than those of NAFTA, CAFTA, and other falsely-named “free-trade agreements.” NAFTA and CAFTA are directly implicated in the horrendous poverty and violence afflicting Mexico and Central America and forcing tens of thousands of children on deadly migrations seeking refuge. After decades of NAFTA and other neoliberal policy, the devastating impacts on workers, farmers, indigenous communities, the environment, and especially the world’s poorest, have surpassed even what critics predicted. Yet, the TPP / TTIP / TISA go further and deeper than NAFTA or any agreements past, doing more to strip governments’ regulatory powers and strengthen “investor protections.”

The “investor protections” in these treaties bolster mechanisms that empower corporations to sue governments over imagined losses of “anticipated profits.” Citizens and governments are not granted the equivalent rights to sue corporations—it’s a one-way wealth and power flow. Currently these “investor-state” systems are being used by corporations to sue over denial of mining permits, pollution cleanup requirements, minimum wage law, climate regulations, cigarette health labels, and a long list of other public interest policies. More than $34 billion remains pending in corporate claims, just in relation to U.S. trade deals. Tribunals are held oversees before three private attorneys who are authorized to grant unlimited sums of taxpayer money to corporations. When not acting as judges, many of these attorneys work for the corporations launching attacks.

The specific impacts that TPP / TTIP / TISA could have on Hawaii are too numerous to list, and, due to unprecedented secrecy, are largely left to speculation based on leaked texts and past agreements. A few issues that are of importance to many in Hawaii include:

Deepening colonialism — The TPP could interfere with Hawaiian self-determination efforts, including contested rights to manage and access resources and sacred places. The TPP would make “biopiracy” (the patenting of indigenous plants and knowledge) even easier, and facilitate appropriation and privatization of Hawaiian culture. Maori activist Te Kaituhi summarizes: “The TPP won’t only affect Indigenous freehold land, nor will it just push our people further into poverty. The TPP will give multinationals the right to exploit the ecosystem and further aid them in the acquiring of enforced trademarking and copyrighting of Indigenous intellectual property and cultural or traditional knowledge.”

Local democratic rights and “home rule” — Citizens of the Mexican municipality of Guadalcazar were made acutely aware of the curtailment of local governance under “free-trade agreements,” when they rejected expansion of a toxic waste facility (that was polluting the water and soil), and were subsequently sued by a U.S. waste management corporation for $16 million under NAFTA. This is one case of many. With the TPP’s more stringent “investor rights,” Hawaii counties and the State could similarly be blocked from any number of local decisions regarding resource use and regulation.

Local food production — When we talk in Hawaii about not being able to increase local food self-sufficiency due to “global market forces,” what we are actually referring to are particular policies that make it very difficult, if not impossible, for regional food systems to survive. The WTO, NAFTA, and other TPP-predecessors laid ruin to local food systems and displaced tens of millions of smallholder farmers in a matter of decades. The TPP extends such policies, which compel single export-oriented economies and favor large agribusiness. These global arrangements make it excessively difficult for Hawaii to develop a truly thriving localized and resilient food economy that goes beyond small market niches.

Exposure to dangerous pesticides — The agrochemical lobby is a main force behind the TPP / TTIP, through which they are pushing for the “harmonization” of countries’ laws to weaken chemical regulations, allow higher levels of pesticides on foods, and block public access to “confidential business information” about pesticide ingredients and dangers. Their goal is to push-down protections and tie governments’ hands at the international level, right at a time when science, social movements, bees and butterflies are all demanding that we raise protections. Many official U.S. TPP negotiators have worked for the chemical lobby, and will likely go back to their old jobs for Monsanto and Dow after they’ve done their service in U.S. government.

Economic vulnerability — Given Hawaii’s over-dependence on tourism, we are especially vulnerable to downturns in the global economy. Hawaii faced one of the worst recessions in its history during the 2008 global economic crisis, and is arguably even more susceptible today. Leaked draft texts of TISA (Trade in Services Agreement), the TPP’s sister agreement, reveal that it would roll-back many of the regulations put in place after the 2008 crisis to stabilize the economy, and that it pushes the very forms of financial deregulation that led to the crisis. Not only could this trigger another recession, but it could shackle governments’ capacities to respond.

Human trafficking — The horror of tens of million of people enslaved globally is increasingly entering public awareness in Hawaii as debates surge about our role as a major hub of human trafficking in the Pacific. The problem of modern slavery desperately requires actions at multiple local-national-international scales, and the TPP is being sold to the public on such promises of lifting human rights standards. In truth, the TPP is denying an opportunity to confront modern slavery and is “rewarding” countries with atrocious human rights records. Shocking even cynics, last week the Obama administration upgraded Malaysia’s human rights status in order to ease its entry into the TPP, despite it being one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking. Many of the corporations that stand to gain from the TPP manufacture electronics in Malaysia, where an estimated one-third of all electronics workers are in conditions of forced labor. Rather than pressure Malaysia to take action against state-complicit slavery, the administration simply wrote a new report saying it’s not such a big problem, and went on drafting the labor provisions of the TPP together with Malaysia and the electronics industry. (Reaffirming that, under “free trade,” workers should be compelled to compete against slave labor).

Climate change — Hawaii is already facing impacts of climate change that are only accelerating, including a decrease in trade winds, declining rainfall and stream flow, warming temperatures, sea level rise, and acidifying oceans. When it comes to climate, the earth is our island, and Hawaii will inevitably be impacted by larger global decisions. Under the provisions of the TPP, coal, natural gas, and oil left in the ground = loss of “expected profits” for fossil-fuel companies, and corporate lawsuits have already been brought over fracking and oil contamination clean-up. Polluters could also handcuff carbon reduction goals and other climate-solution policies. Further, some trade analysts suggest that the TPP / TTIP would provide “huge market incentives” for more coal mining, oil drilling, mining of tar sands, and fracking. Recently passed legislation forbids trade negotiators from taking any action on climate change in the TPP or other such agreements.

The list goes on. Clearly, these are not purely matters of trade, and they are certainly not about “freedom to trade” as ideologues hold. These are massive, binding international treaties, enforceable through harsh economic penalties, with far-reaching repercussions, far into the future.

The problem is not with global agreements in and of themselves, nor is the problem trade. The problem is what is being pursued through such global agreements—control of wealth and power for very few, in direct correlation with increasing poverty and inequality, erosion of democracy, and catastrophic earth destruction.

Why not, instead, pursue binding international treaties guaranteeing a universal basic income? Or reducing carbon emissions to preserve a livable planet? Or agreements on debt cancellation, or aiding refugees of violence and climate change, or cracking down on human-trafficking, or institutionalizing open-sharing of our biological commons, or any number of urgent moral matters that require working together as an island-planet? We might also start thinking more as a world community about alternatives to compulsive wealth accumulation and commodification of everything from our genes on up to the atmosphere. The TPP is just an extension of these systemic capitalist drives, and it’s far past time to reach for some other options.

In the very immediate term, we in Hawaii might ask whether the TPP is the type of international agreement that we want being concluded in our home. Or, the more basic question in a “democracy,” do we even have a voice to say anything about it?