Access: Fighting Free Trade Agreements

An interview with Brazillian activist Fatima Mello, who worked with South American civil society groups to bring down the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas

Fatima Mello of the Brazil Network for the Integration of Peoples worked with other civil society groups across South America in order to bring down the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a collective trade agreement between the United States and countries in South America. In Brazil, the public campaign specifically succeeded in alerting people to the threat the FTAA posed to the country’s program of expanding access to medicines. Negotiations on a continent-wide agreement were finally dropped in 2003 with credit going to the civil society campaign that put pressure on the regional governments. Here Fatima Mello discusses the campaign and lessons learned:

Fatima Mello: We think the success in winning the battle was due to two factors. One was that we were able to make a huge campaign in society. Basically, we succeeded very well in translating the negotiating issues into daily life, like access to medicine [and] what would happen if the US could control with their big industries all of our medicines distribution.

MSF: So what did you tell them specifically about medicines? How did you put it to them?

Fatima Mello: If IP [international property] rules that are TRIPS-plus [i.e., heightened beyond the baseline tenets of the World Trade Organization's agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property] are included in FTAA, all these moves that Brazil is making towards widening access to medicines will suffer a backlash. The public was very sensitive to this argument.

MSF: So what did you do practically? What tools did you use to mobilize opinion?

Fatima Mello: We got into the big media, which is really incredible in a place like Brazil where the media is so controlled by big corporations. We created a lot of popular educational materials in very accessible language, which we distributed all over the country through grassroots organizations, progressive churches, [and] women’s groups. And one other part: we were able to make a referendum—not official but a symbolic referendum—and we collected ten million signatures against FTAA. Besides that, the second big foundation of our campaign was lobbying our governments.

MSF: Were there any obstacles along the way, anything that you did not foresee?

Fatima Mello: We felt it was very dangerous when the FTAA as a continental agreement was not approved and the US began to split it into bilateral agreements with different countries or groups of countries like the EU is doing now here in the region as well. But it was amazing among civil society groups all over the Americas, how strong and unified groups were against FTAA. So this was the strong part of it that governments could not avoid, making the voices of people strong in terms of their rights and trying to fight for their rights.