Debating free trade in paradise

When I was told about the assignment to Honolulu, Hawaii to cover APEC, my colleagues immediately expressed jealousy, even mild disdain for my good fortune. Here is the secret though no one likes to cover these things.

I know why economic summits are always held in beautiful tourist towns. If not, no one from the media would want to go.

When I was told about the assignment to Honolulu, Hawaii to cover the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), my colleagues immediately expressed jealousy, even mild disdain for my good fortune. Here is the secret though no one likes to cover these things. Very little news is made, the limited availability you’re given to talk to leaders usually results in the same scripted sound bites. But the biggest reason by far is that Free Trade Agreements are incredibly hard to understand and even tougher to explain on television.

President Barack Obama was unusually blunt when he said the US economy needs Asia. He’s counting on increased exports to jump start the stalled US economy. To make it easier to do business, and possibly to try and counter China’s strong foothold in the region, his administration is pushing to join and expand the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It will be the world’s largest free trade zone, if finalised, including eight Pacific nations and the United States. The potential agreement got a big boost this week when Japan, Canada and Mexico signalled their intention to join the talks. Are you bored yet?  

We tried to get a more thorough and exciting view on the concept of the FTA while here. We started by going away from APEC, to the Moana Nui conference. It was billed as an alternative to the meeting of the 21 world leaders taking place nearby. 

In a small borrowed church, a few hundred activists talked about the evils of economic co-operation and spreading capitalism. Full disclosure, I’m an American and therefore never really thought to question whether economic growth is good. It’s one of those things you’re just taught to accept growing up. One of those subtle beliefs that is part of the American character, much like thinking baseball is a fun game to watch even if it really isn’t. 

I spoke with a man at the conference who is 86-years-old. He remembers Hawaii before it was a state. When I asked him what it was like then, he didn’t describe a kind of heavenly system of living off the land, being a part of a harmonious culture, or a kind of tropical paradise. He said that Hawaii was a vast plantation and it was run by five powerful families, with Hawaiians having very little say in daily life as they worked the land.  

Isn’t it better now?” I asked. “You live in a democracy, you can vote and you have an economy that is doing much better than the one on the mainland.”  

He answered, it’s a vote in “their system” and then frankly told me that I “didn’t get it”. 

In truth, I didn’t, but I was trying. 

The bottom line for these protesters is that they feel the expanding global economy means their culture is being replaced, their resources exploited and their natural wealth taken. It is true that tourism here means much of the money made goes back to the giant hotel chains. There are jobs, but is it better to be paid to clean up after tourists, or to work in a field? That isn’t really the question I’m learning. They don’t all necessarily want to go back to what they had, but they want a bigger share of what is here now. 

While I was doing live shots about the summit, in a very glamourous parking lot with rather rank dumpsters across the street from the convention center, my team headed over to the big island.  We wanted to talk to someone who actually stands to gain from the FTA  being debated inside the heavily fortified perimeter.  

We talked to growers of Kona coffee, one who is fourth generation on the land. They cannot wait for the TPP to be completed. The reason is clear. It’s closer and therefore cheaper to ship to Asia. They believe if they can break into 10 per cent of the Chinese market, a tea drinking country with an enormous population, that could easily replace all the business they do with the US. Most importantly, they believe that Asian consumers are willing to pay more for their product, already one of the most expensive coffees in the world.  For them, a Free Trade Agreement means more profits, for their current customers it means they’ll just have to pay more. 

So at the end of the day, as I wait for my flight back to Washington, DC, I’m going to try to get over to actually see the ocean for a minute and think about what I learned in my attempt “to get it”.

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