In an impassioned appeal read on his behalf at the start of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in the Mexican resort of Cancun on Wednesday, Annan said the victims of unfair trade could be counted in their billions.

“The reality of the international trading system today does not match the rhetoric. Instead of open markets, there are too many barriers that stunt, stifle and starve,” said Annan.

Faith needs to be rebuilt in the multilateral trade system, he said.

“Without progress now, today’s bitterness may well become tomorrow’s backlash,” said the UN chief.

Problematic handouts

The World Bank says 144 million people could be lifted out of poverty by 2015 if a new global trade deal scrapped the $300 billion subsidies that rich states pay their farmers each year, making it all but impossible for poor countries to compete.

Poor nations want rich states to slash the $300 billion in subsidies, six times more than what they provide as  development aid.

These handouts and high tariffs shut out rich-country markets, according to poor countries.

A group of 21 developing states, including China, India, Brazil and Cuba, have formed an alliance to demand that rich countries scrap the farm handouts they say condemn millions of their farmers to poverty.

The United States and European Union reject the call as impracticable, but are under strong pressure to improve offers they have already made to reduce farm subsidies. 

Suicide protest

Anti-globalisation protesters face
off against police

Meanwhile, a South Korean demonstrator in Cancun killed himself in protest against the WTO.

Lee Kyang Hae,55, was the head of the South Korea Federation of Farmers and Fishermen. Fellow protesters said his death was not an accident but "reflected the desperate fighting of 3.5 million Korean farmers".

Several other people were injured when police used teargas and batons to prevent demonstrators from breaking through metal barriers blocking the route to the convention centre where delegates are meeting.

Protesters threw stones and bricks at the police.

Guarded by riot police and even Navy ships patrolling the coast, the 146-nation WTO opened a five-day meeting trying to compromise on a host of disputes, topped by massive agricultural subsidies in the United States and Europe.

About 5000 Mexican peasants and foreign activists joined a march to protest against what they and many critics say is an unfair world trade system tilted against developing countries.

Voices

“Free trade in agriculture products doesn’t really exist. It’s a lie they try to drum into our heads,” said 73-year-old Antonio Luna, a farmer from central Mexico.

Luna says he can buy imported corn three times cheaper than he can grow it himself because of subsidies to US farmers.

WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpakdi opened the meeting by saying the weak world economy needed a strong message from ministers in favour of freer trade.

The aim of this week’s meeting is to revive talks that started two years ago in Doha, Qatar.