At noon today, all along Kaʻanapali beach near the Westin Maui—hotel host for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations taking place in Hawaiʻi this week—a flotilla of kayaks, surfboards, boats and rafts will converge in peaceful protest. The concerned citizens piloting these watercraft see the TPP for what it is: a massive international treaty being negotiated completely in secret. It will drive down wages, gut democracy, threaten sovereignty, increase the cost of medicines, trample on environmental protections and give corporations the power to sue taxpayers over any laws they don’t like. They will attempt to blow a record number of pū (conch shells) in a mighty signal to the corporate negotiators in the Westin that they stand for people and land over profits.
But lets back up for a second. What’s it like to be at one of these international “trade” negotiations?
The scene: the Westin Maui—a luxurious hotel with resplendent waterfalls, winding garden paths, flamingos and swans (flash: neither of these birds are native to Hawaiʻi) roaming around freely, and way-too-on-mark $20 cheese burgers available for purchase. The cast: primarily comprised of chic, if perhaps a little skimpy, swimsuits and neon floaties.
But then there are these others; business suits and panty hose. Some are crisp and walk with a sense of empowerment. These are trade representatives from developed countries. The others are disheveled and lost-looking. These are either trade reps from developing countries, or members of the press. There are also a dozen or so non-government organization (NGO)‘s represented here—their reps are both disheveled and empowered… maybe angered is more like it.
There have been 26 meetings like this over the last several years. They go like this: the wealthy nations put their trade reps up in the luxury hotel where the negotiations are being held (the Westin, in this case). They get to sleep in comfy beds later into the morning. What can we bring you for breakfast? Free wifi? Of course! Take a quick dip between meetings, while your at it! The poorer nations (and the entire press core) stay at budget hotels, miles away. They sleep less hours in less comfy beds, and have access to less amenities. It is, in a word, a microcosm of the effects the actual trade-negotiation will have on the actual countries these people represent.
The negotiators head into a private meeting room guarded by large, frowny men in loose aloha shirts. The press sit in the lobby just outside the meeting room, and wait. They type on their computers, nap in the hallway, snack, daydream and otherwise occupy themselves while they wait for some kind of hint about what is going on inside the big room; maybe they get a picture of somebody walking by, maybe they overhear a conversation.
Yesterday, the press was given four minutes to view the meeting room between negotiations. They were allowed to take pictures and video, but all they got was footage of people on break. One Japanese reporter got a recording of a negotiator speaking on the side in English. Confident he had something meaningful, he tracked down someone he could trust that spoke English. It turned out to be nothing comprehensible. Some trade reps will throw out crumbs. The Japanese minister provides a short explanation at the beginning and end of each day—no questions answered, just a brief report on what little he feels comfortable sharing. Other trade staff will allow press a glimpse at the schedule, or a hint at what is being discussed, but nothing on the record, of course.
The NGO members hold press conferences, at least one a day (like vitamins), to assert their position on the dayʻs goings on, and to demand better: better language, better transparency, better everything, because nothing about this is good. The press appear burdened by the NGO demands, and they definitely arenʻt sympathetic to them. Meanwhile, they scurry around and fumble with their cameras anytime a trade rep walks to the bathroom.
This is, apparently, how decisions affecting millions around the planet are made these days.
“Of course these trade deals are secret. How else do you expect them to negotiate?” say the proponents. To be clear, these negotiations are not between two corporations working out a mutually beneficial trade deal. These negotiations will create real and lasting impacts on the laws of every nation involved and the people these laws govern, and they are being crafted entirely in secret.
What we know about the agreement includes its authorizing of the roughly 600 corporations included in the deal to:
- Side-step courts of law and arbitrate disagreements in private trade tribunals that are accountable to nobody. This means companies can (and, therefore, will) ignore environmental laws, protections for workers, human rights laws and public health standards.
- Guarantee their profits. Yes, if a country passes a law down the road that a corporation feels could lessen its anticipated profits, that corporation can charge the country (read: its taxpayers) for the difference. The exact amount would be determined by those same secret trade tribunals.
- Lengthen their patents to prevent the sale of more affordable generic items, including life-saving medicines.
But wait, there’s more: The deal has no expiration date and additional countries and corporations can be added on later. Make no mistake, if the TPP is adopted, we will lose our home rule, along with any chance of curtailing the negative consequences of climate change.
These thoughts are swirling around in my head as I am bumped off the windy, hotel path by a herd of neon floaties carried by chic bikinis. They don’t seem concerned by the negotiations going on; they don’t seem to know what’s at stake. Why arenʻt more people angry? I feel like screaming. I feel cornered and powerless. I feel overwhelmed.
Corporations are not elected. Corporations should not be decision makers when it comes to the laws that protect people and the environment. Corporations are legal fiction created to facilitate commerce. But corporations have gotten so big and greedy, they have managed to elbow their way to the decision making table, and are actually undermining the kind of commerce that focuses on building and supporting communities in the process.
The only antidote is people power. People are elected. People should be the decision makers. People need to feel the power they have and to use it to reverse this overpowered corporate trend. It’s up to us.
Hawaiʻi is one of the most beautiful places on earth. We who live here have a responsibility to protect the natural and cultural resources that make this place so amazing. We have taken this responsibility seriously, establishing some very powerful laws in the process. We have laws that ensure our beaches and trails are always public, laws that ensure our environment is healthy, laws that protect conservation areas and clean water, laws that guarantee we all have a high-quality life here. While it’s true that we aren’t always successful at properly implementing these laws, we also have a well-tested court system that has shown its willingness to ensure that justice is eventually served. And when that fails, we have an electoral system that can respond to our will when we assert it.
The TPP would have us give up on our responsibility; to just let go and allow it all to erode away.
don’t let that happen. There are injustices in the world that we often canʻt do anything directly about—West Papua, the Marshall Islands, Syria—but this is one that we can do something directly about. We can stand up for our home. Stand together to defend this responsibility we have to protect Hawaiʻi, and the world. This system no longer works for the people or the land. We should do whatever it takes to change that.
Marti Townsend is the director of the Hawaiʻi chapter of the Sierra Club