Fri, 07 Mar 2003

RI to defend agriculture tariff policy at WTO

A'an Suryana, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government would defend its current import tariff policy on agriculture products at the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Geneva, Indonesian Ambassador for WTO Gusmardi Bustami said.

He told The Jakarta Post on Thursday that the tariff barrier was crucial for Indonesia as a developing nation in which a large part of the population earned their living from cultivating food crops.

"With limited government resources, tariffs are our only means of support to our farmers," Gusmardi said.

He added that the above position was not against the world's drive for trade liberalization because the current average import tariff of 8.4 percent was already considered too low.

The WTO talks on liberalization of the agriculture sector will be held from March 24 to March 31. It will be the final round, meaning that any outcomes will be binding for member countries of WTO.

The final round is a follow-up of the milestone agricultural WTO meeting in Doha, Qatar, called the "Doha Round" in November 2001.

Meanwhile, a senior official at the ministry of agriculture said in a trade liberalization seminar on Thursday that developing countries like Indonesia must be excluded from the liberalization drive.

The ministry's negotiator at WTO P. Natigor Siagian said a full liberalization of the country's agriculture sector would cause huge losses to the domestic farming sector.

"The government will fight in order to ensure that Indonesia can be excluded from trade liberalization," he said.

Another government official at the ministry, who was also present at the seminar, added that the Indonesian demands will be focused on several "strategic" agriculture products like rice, sugar, and soybeans.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Institute for the Global Justice supported the government's position.

The NGO executive director Bonnie Setiawan said that opening up the agriculture sector would cause the domestic market to become flooded with low priced imported agriculture products, thus hurting the owners of agribusiness corporations as well as most of the farm laborers that work the land.

He said that while Indonesia was previously one of the world's rice exporters, the country has now already become one of the biggest rice importers in the world, purchasing around 10 percent of the rice being traded in the international market last year.

However, an association representing agribusiness has said that to keep their prices higher than the imported agriculture products, the government must further raise the existing import tariff rate so all the produce will be more expensive allowing them to maintain their current income.