CANCUN, Mexico Negotiators from 146 countries sat down to thorny trade negotiations Wednesday, with rich and poor nations pushing conflicting agendas on agricultural reform and leaders cautioning that their decisions could mean life or death for billions of people.
Thousands of poor farmers, worried that more trade will drive them out of business, clashed with riot police as they tried to storm past barricades blocking the site of the World Trade Organization meeting. Hours later they dispersed, vowing to try again.
Leaders at the opening WTO session made clear they will try to level the playing field on farm trade by persuading rich nations to make deep cuts in the nearly $1 billion a day they pay their farmers.
Those subsidies help U.S. and European farms stay profitable, but make it hard for poor farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America to compete in a globalized market.
''The eyes of the world are on this conference, and people will judge us by the choices we make,'' WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi told delegates as the meeting opened in a cavernous hall.
The biggest opponents to major subsidy cuts the United States, European nations and Japan wield tremendous weight in the 146-country organization, largely because their markets constitute the bulk of the global economy.
The United States and Europe agreed last month on a proposal for moderate cuts in subsidies and tariffs, but developing nations have been critical, saying the champions of free trade need to go further. A group of 21 developing nations have banded together to pressure rich nations for deeper agricultural reforms.
''No longer can we allow ourselves prosperity restricted to a few nations,'' Mexican President Vicente Fox said at the opening ceremony.
Dozens of activists chanted ''Shame!'' from the back of the hall, holding up signs calling the WTO obsolete and undemocratic and nearly drowning out a speech by Mexico's foreign minister.
Thousands more protesters massed nearby. The group was made up largely of farmers demanding that agricultural protections be kept in place.
''This is a battle of the rich against the poor,'' said Leon Crump, a vegetable farmer from South Carolina. ''And no one is poorer in the United States than farmers.''
Protesters and riot police battled for hours along a chain-link fence separating the city of Cancun from the peninsula that houses beach resorts and the city's famous all-you-can-drink watering holes, as well as the hall where WTO delegates are meeting.
Protesters pushed down the fence, prompting hundreds of police to try to drive them away with tear gas and nightsticks. Activists fought back with chunks of concrete, bottles, and burning banners.
A South Korean farmer climbed atop a fence and stabbed himself in the chest with a knife in what friends called a ceremonial act. Kung Hae Lee was undergoing surgery for an ''extremely serious'' wound, said Dr. Aurelio Espinosa at Cancun's General Hospital.
''He believes if the negotiations go through at the WTO, it will be the death of the Korean farmer,'' said colleague Jung Kwang Hoon of the Korean People's Solidarity movement.
Protesters have been a force at every major WTO meeting since 1999, when street riots disrupted talks in Seattle. Activists, who include farmers, union leaders and students, argue that free-trade rules benefit big business at the expense of the poor and the environment.
Opposition to the WTO's work also came from world leaders. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a statement read to the delegates, criticized wealthy nations for imposing what he described as an unfair trading system on the rest of the world.
''We are told that free trade brings opportunity for all people, not just a fortunate few,'' he said. ''Sadly, the reality of the international trading system today does not match the rhetoric.''
Wednesday evening, ministers were to debate a proposal by four African countries that wealthy nations stop subsidizing their cotton farmers. Ministers from Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali and Chad said they can produce cotton more cheaply than rich countries, but they argue they can't sell it because of artificially low prices for U.S., Chinese and European cotton.
The meeting was an extension of talks begun nearly two years ago in Doha, Qatar. Delegates have already missed several important deadlines, and members have expressed concern that they may not finish by the end of next year, their self-imposed deadline.
''We should learn from the past and face the reality that we cannot keep postponing decisions, even if they are sometimes difficult,'' Supachai said. ''There comes a time that rhetoric has to be backed by action.''
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Cancun contributed to this report.
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