Book review - "The Trade Trap: Poverty and the Global Commodity Markets",
by Belinda Coote, Oxfam Publishing, 1992

by Bob Thomson, IFAT Information Co-ordinator, July 1992

Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy points out that "The conversion of traditional peasant economies from food self- sufficiency and ecologically efficient agriculture to chemical intensive cash crops for export, made whole nations victims of adverse terms of trade, debt and foreign aid." Belinda Coote, in this well written book, provides an excellent introduction to this complex process, which lies at the root of global inequality, the debt crisis and the debate over free trade.

In a style which is both readable and academically thorough, Ms. Coote describes the workings of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and a host of other terms and institutions such as TRIMs, TRIPs, the MFA, and SDRs which are necessary to understand how this myriad of multilateral bureaucracies and trade regulations promotes and reinforces global inequality.

Explaining the nineteenth century comparative advantage trade theories of Ricardo which are used to underpin free trade arguments, Coote shows how there has not been a "level playing field" for the Third World since the colonial powers began to pillage the gold, silver and sugar fields of the south in the fourteenth century to finance the industrial revolution in Europe. Also revealed is the often subtle and intricate process whereby international corporations, governments and trade regulations promote competition among Third World governments and workers, at the expense of safety, the environment and the long term sustainability of the planet.

Her strongest suite however is her ability to relate the macro-level workings of world trade systems to the day to day lives and impoverishment of farmers and producers of Sri Lankan tea, Philipino coconuts, Dominican coffee, Wisconsin corn, Bolivian tin, Bangladeshi shrimp and Chilean hardwoods. It is these descriptions of ordinary people struggling to produce the commodities we take for granted, while their own incomes drop and the cost of their basic necessities skyrocket, which brings this book to life.

Unlike so many doom and gloom critiques of "the system", Ms. Coote offers examples of solutions to the negative workings of an inequitable trading system and even recommends steps that governments and consumers can take to begin movement toward an alternative trade model. While pointing out that alternative trade, with its concern for the conditions and wages of producers, may be the fourth wave of green marketing, after recognition of safety, environmental and sustainable development factors, she does not romanticize green consumerism as the ultimate solution. She notes for example that crafts can never be a full time economic solution but are an invaluable, flexible supplement to other agricultural activities and an entry point for education and organizing, especially of women. Her conclusions recognize the necessity of major political changes to the free market model, as well as the provision of greener consumption and production.

In our complex global village we must understand and work for global as well as local and regional stability and peace. This book is a must read for those who wish to understand the complexities of world trade and are involved, or want to become involved, in the struggle for change.