Negotiators moved closer to agreement Friday on the "framework" for a new global trade pact, after the United States and several African countries struck a compromise on the highly charged issue of cotton subsidies.
Haggling over details was likely to continue all night as trade officials try to put back on track the World Trade Organization's Doha Round of negotiations. The talks, aimed at lowering trade barriers worldwide, have been stalled since a meeting last September in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed because of conflict between rich and poor nations.
Although agreement is not guaranteed, negotiators said they had resolved most major disputes -- even if, in some cases, they did so by papering over issues until later. The four-day meeting in Geneva is meant to produce a framework for future talks, advancing the Doha Round but not finalizing the terms.
A WTO official, speaking to reporters on condition that he not be identified because of the delicate status of the talks, said late Friday afternoon that reaction among representatives of the 140-plus WTO members was "largely positive" to a draft circulated Friday morning.
The accord on cotton marked a significant step toward overall agreement. U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick spent many hours in talks with negotiators from West African nations, where cotton is a major crop.
The billions of dollars that rich countries, primarily the United States, pay their cotton producers have been blamed for causing huge oversupplies of the crop on world markets in recent years, depressing the prices that farmers in developing countries receive. Although subsidies for other farm products have similar effects on prices, cotton is especially controversial because it is an important crop in some of the world's poorest countries.
The United States recently lost a WTO case on the issue brought by Brazil, which argued that U.S. payments to cotton farmers violated international trade rules. Although the United States is appealing, that ruling by a WTO panel has given U.S. officials an extra reason to amend the current cotton program.
Singling out cotton's importance, the draft released Friday states that WTO members "will work to achieve ambitious results expeditiously" by lowering subsidies as well as reducing tariffs and other trade barriers. A number of other provisions helped secure West African support, including the establishment of a special subcommittee to deal with cotton in future talks.
"This is undoubtedly important progress," said Ousmane Ngom, the minister of commerce for Senegal, at a news conference.
The Africans' positive assessment was strongly disputed by Celine Charveriat, head of the Geneva office of Oxfam International, an aid organization. Charveriat criticized the text as too vague to offer much certainty that U.S. subsidies would be reduced. She said in a written statement, "Failure to address the cotton issue . . . will have serious implications for the 10 million West African cotton farmers whose livelihoods are currently undermined by U.S. export dumping."
But Ngom emphasized that the framework document could not offer much specificity since the precise subsidy reduction will be determined in final negotiations. "The real negotiations will start in September," when the Doha Round is tentatively scheduled to resume, he said, adding that a final agreement eventually "will help improve the destiny of millions of people."
The draft includes a provision that rich countries offer a "first installment" by reducing their "trade distorting" farm subsidies by 20 percent. But that cut would not be made from current spending levels; rather, at U.S. insistence, it would come from a legally allowable ceiling. Since U.S. spending on such subsidies is below the ceiling, it might have minimal impact on U.S. farm programs.
Another item in the text has been criticized by a number of countries as giving the United States the opportunity to shelter billions of dollars of its farm subsidies from required cuts. Negotiations on how to close that loophole, or at least limit it, were among the most contentious of the meeting.
"The show is not over, far from it," said Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, the Dutch trade minister, though he said the European Union views the text as "a good basis to start from."