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Free Trade Free-For-All

Environmentalists, farmers, Republicans say Bush's CAFTA deal puts industry up for grabs

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Perry Meuleman planted his first sugar beet patch in 1956. Nampa farmer Steve Martineau took up the trade in 1969, and when the weather cooperates, sugar beets cover about 900 acres of his farmland just south of Lake Lowell. This year's wet spring left fields too muddy to start cultivation, and Martineau had to let some of his farm workers go. Yet he manages to hold on to his humor. Get this, Martineau jokes: He sells what most people consume for free, in packets at coffee shops, convenience stores and restaurants. Still, he says, "Farming has been good to us"-even good enough to inspire Martineau's son to join the family business in 1994.

But Meuleman, a Rupert farmer and president of the Idaho Sugar Beet Growers Assocation, worries there might not be a new generation of sugar beet farmers. And Martineau expects to see those 900 acres-and his workforce-shrink.

"It's not as much fun as it used to be," Meuleman says. "There are too many risks."

Back in 1956, Meuleman hoped small farmers like him and the Martineaus would feed the nation. But low-carb diets, health food kicks, corporate farming, agriculture technology and trade agreements left that hope a dream. And Idaho sugar beet farmers say another trade agreement expected to go before Congress this week could further sour the state's third largest industry and yield a rotten deal for Idaho's economy.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), currently awaiting congressional approval, would lift tariffs on U.S. exports to sugarcane-rich Central American nations and grant foreign producers duty-free access to the U.S. market. The agreement, signed by George W. Bush last year, divided Republicans and garnered opposition from groups not typically united on the political front. Green Party members are just some of the Idahoans worried the pact could thwart environmental and labor protections. Republicans like Sen Mike Crapo and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne share sugar beet farmers' fear that CAFTA provisions to import 107,000 metric tons of sugar into the U.S. market could displace local producers.

"You put that in an oversaturated market and that just adds to it," Meuleman says of the potential imports. "With our [World Trade Organization] commitments, we have to bring in 1,252,000 tons (of sugar) and with the NAFTA we have to allow 275,000 to 300,000 tons in."

Meuleman says farmers are already sitting on 700,000 tons of surplus sugar nationally, stockpiled as the result of deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pacts with the World Trade Organization. Farmers must store the surplus at their own expense and fear those tons could multiply under a CAFTA deal.

"I haven't seen NAFTA do anything for me," says Martineau. "CAFTA is like NAFTA on steroids."

Bush has said CAFTA provisions would lift tariffs seen as a barrier to U.S. trade exports, opening Central America to more American agriculture, technology and manufactured products. He is backed by some industry leaders, including Idaho beef producers, who say congressional approval of the trade agreement with Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua could broaden their market and level competition.

Meuleman says farming is already tough competition for some U.S. agricultural producers and trade with Central American countries, backed by wages and gross national production that dwarf those of the U.S., could kill some industries and send a ripple effect through the Idaho and U.S. economy.

"How much goods can they buy?" Meuleman asks of the so-called Third World nations that often struggle with economic depression. But he figures some folks in the trade economy will benefit from CAFTA provisions-like corporations who can take advantage of the Central American nations' less-stringent labor laws. "We feel big corporations just want to outsource," Meuleman says.

The CAFTA agreement would grant multinational corporations power over state legislatures and the ability to sue governments if they deem their policies-such as labor and environmental laws-impede trade or infringe upon the corporation's ability to turn a profit. The provisions are not unlike NAFTA rules, notes Jason Whittier, Idaho Green Party member and a vocal opponent of CAFTA. And NAFTA didn't improve the economies of the countries involved in the agreement that resulted in the loss of U.S. jobs, he says.

"We need to scrap CAFTA altogether or rewrite it to include rules for workers' rights and environmental protection," Whittier says. "I do not think it would be wise for Congress or any other governing body to declare it doctrine until the necessary amendments are made to ensure that it is a 'fair trade' agreement and not just free."

Sen. Mike Crapo also reviewed his definition of free trade against CAFTA. "This just doesn't support the scope of what he considers free trade," says Lindsay Nothern, spokesperson for Crapo "We're not backing the President."

Crapo also withheld his support from the NAFTA agreement. In the past, "We've negotiated a lot of bad agreements," Nothern says.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne agrees that CAFTA could hinder the ability of Idaho sugar beet producers to compete in the marketplace. While his press secretary Michael Journee says that "The Governor is always supportive of free trade and the opening of markets which this (CAFTA) will do," he adds that Kempthorne will not back the deal unless something is done to address the concerns of Idaho's producers.

Nearly 50 years after planting that first sugar beet patch, Meuleman has seen his market shrink, watched sugar beet prices drop, processing factories close and his equity take a nosedive. Most of what has happened in the name of free trade pushes him closer to retirement, Meuleman says. And while 700,000 tons of sugar sits in storage, some ask who or what was really getting traded.

"We've done things for political reasons, (Crapo) feels," Nothern says. "Agriculture cannot be a bargaining chip."