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Nun discusses free trade

Katie Kohler | Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Under the trade agreements set by North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), businesses have been successful in suing countries over trade restrictions, a hotly-debated topic discussed Tuesday by Sister Mary Turgi, director of the Congregants Justice Committee for the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

“That is a scary thing when a business can have the power to sue a national government,” Turgi said.

Her lecture, which focused on the importance of fair trade and justice issues involving international relations, was presented by Saint Mary’s Campus Ministry as the second part in the College’s series themed “What difference does it make?”

The previous lecture, titled “Choices that Affect the Environment and our Faith,” focused on health care and environmental issues.

Turgi explained the difference between free and fair trade – free trade lifts all impediments on trade, which could include environmental laws, human rights and labor laws, and laws that protect the Earth.

“[It] allows corporations and businesses to operate however they want, without restrictions,” she said of free trade.

According to statistics from the World Bank, free trade has a negative impact on the poorest 40 percent of the world and only benefits the well-off, Turgi said.

Turgi tied in the goal of the Sisters of the Holy Cross’ goals for fair trade and said that the sisters are interested in the global involvement in the fair trade movement through education and example.

“There is no coincidence that the same problems [of trade injustice] are happening on each continent,” Turgi said.

After Turgi gave her analytical point of view, she introduced Sister Mary Tiernan, who spent several years working with poor farmers in Brazil for 26 years.

She began by giving a personal anecdote on the price difference of Coca-Cola in Brazil versus that of the United States.

“I learned that when the product is cheaper, it is not always the best option. It just means that the people who made it are getting nothing,” Tiernan said. “They [the workers] do the same work, have the same risks, have the same desires to raise their children, but their salaries are proportionally much smaller in the Southern Hemisphere of the globe.”

She said she focused on “the injustice of the global economic system … and the more analytical point of view of trade.”

Through education of these landless laborers, they were better able to recognize the global problem and seek the guidance to learn how to negotiate, transport their goods to a fair market and package their goods efficiently, she said.

Tiernan showed pictures of the farmers in her village to illustrate the extreme poverty the workers face still today.

Tiernan and Turgi proceeded to show a short video sponsored by Equal Exchange, a fair trade corporation. Equal Exchange, which began in 1986 as the first company to adopt fair trade standards in America, is currently the leading producer of fair trade brand coffee in the world. Equal Exchange produces organic, high quality products for a slightly higher price, but benefits the workers rather than exploits them. Equal Exchange also promises to honor minimum price for a product according to the world market, the video said.

The video showed that a small village in Nicaragua was able to receive relief from poverty by selling their products to Equal Exchange in a time characterized as “the best of times for coffee, but the worst of time for farmers.”

After the video, Turgi said that it is important to buy fair trade products, noting that Catholics spend over $5 billion a year on coffee.

“If even a fraction of Catholics switched to fair trade coffee, think of the impact it would have on people’s lives,” she said.