Citizens slam trade deals

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LEWISTON – Peter Wallingford can measure the impact of foreign trade agreements.

For his family-owned orchard, it’s meant 80 acres of nonproductive apple trees and no health insurance for himself or his workers.

“In the early ’70s, there were about 7,000 acres of commercial apple orchards in Maine,” said the fourth-generation Auburn apple grower. “Presently there are just over 2,000. Most of that decrease is a direct result of unfair trade and foreign imports.”

Wallingford was one of more than 20 people who took the dais Thursday night to speak about personal experiences with trade agreements in a hearing sponsored by the Citizen’s Trade Policy Commission. The nonpartisan group investigates issues related to trade and its impact on Maine, and recommends policy to the state and federal authorities.

Wallingford, who used to harvest from 120 acres of trees, said unfair trade practices has devastated his industry. Apples from South America and New Zealand dominate the wholesale market now,and China and its 5 million acres in apple orchards are on their way. Offshore producers don’t have the environmental or labor issues to contend with that cripple domestic producers, such as paying a federally mandated $9.16 per hour to harvest the apples, he said.

The impact from trade policies cut a wide swath in the hearing room at Andover College where about 40 people gathered to hear or give testimony. Issues ranged from limiting Maine water extraction to access, from prescription drugs to human rights violations.

Several speakers voiced concerns over the potential loss of sovereignty that accompanies trade agreements such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization agreement. A component of those agreements establishes a worldwide authority to resolve legal disputes that supersedes domestic law-making authority.

Sharon Treat, a former legislator and now an advocate for public health policy, cited a lawsuit filed by Eli Lilly against Australia, which has a bilateral trade agreement with the United States. Under a provision of free trade, the drug maker is suing to force Australia to include one of its drugs on the country’s preferred prescription list, making it eligible for the government drug benefit program.

“What can be done in Australia can be done in Maine or elsewhere in the United States,” said Treat, noting Maine maintains its own preferred drug list for its prescription programs. “Maine could be ripe for a similar attack.”

Sean Donahue, a member of Peace Through Interamerican Community Action, traveled from Bangor to urge the commission to recommend to Maine’s congressional delegation that they reject the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement now in negotiations. Donahue, who has traveled to South America, said it’s impossible to verify labor standards at all in a country like Colombia where union organizers are systematically killed.

Others feared trade agreements will undermine environmental protections for natural resources such as fisheries and fresh water. Craig Saddlemire said Maine negotiated an agreement with Nestle Waters for the company to pay ½ cent per gallon of water extracted from the Range Pond watershed. He wondered if trade agreements would prevent the state from renegotiating for a higher price, or from imposing restrictions on how much water Nestle could withdraw.

Commission members, under the chairmanship of Sen. Peggy Rotundo and Rep. John Patrick, said they will sift through the testimony, looking for action they can take. The group successfully lobbied U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, to vote against CAFTA and helped influence Gov. John Baldacci’s decision to request an exemption for Maine from some of the General Agreement on Trades and Services treaty provisions.

Although the 17-member commission asked people to share positive experiences with free trade, none was offered last night.

“I don’t know how much longer I can stay in business with this playing field,” said Wallingford, who left the hearing to spray his crops. “We can’t continue to give (foreign competitors) the advantage.”

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