The members of the Cairns Group held their eighteenth Ministerial Meeting in Sydney, Australia on 1-3 April.
Ministers welcomed South Africa as the newest member and the first African member of the Cairns Group. They noted that the participation of South Africa would strengthen the capacity of the Group to work for a fairer and freer international agricultural trading system.
Ministers also welcomed the inaugural meeting in Sydney of Cairns Group Farm Leaders and their strong statement in support of the Group's efforts to further liberalise agricultural trade in renewed WTO agriculture negotiations to commence in 1999.
Ministers recalled the joint objective agreed at their 1997 Rio Meeting that the next WTO agriculture negotiations achieve fundamental reform to place agriculture on the same basis as other areas of world trade. In this connection Ministers agreed upon the attached "Vision Statement" setting out the Cairns Group's objectives in the three key areas of export subsidies, market access and domestic support.
Ministers called upon the May Ministerial meeting of the WTO to launch a preparatory process which will allow the mandate and structure of the agriculture negotiations, agreed as part of the Uruguay Round "Built-in Agenda" to be efficiently settled so that substantive negotiations can commence by end 1999.
Ministers also agreed to use all opportunities, including work in other fora and contacts in relevant regional organisations and other groupings, to promote the Cairns Group's 'Vision'. Between now and the 1999 negotiations the Group will intensify its links and contacts with other WTO members and, in particular, work to demonstrate that the agricultural reform process will benefit all developing and least developed countries.
In reviewing the work program agreed at their 1997 Rio Meeting, Ministers agreed that the Group will continue to coordinate closely - in particular on full implementation of commitments on agriculture and sanitary and phytosanitary measures, including provision of technical assistance; to ensure that new WTO members comply fully with WTO agriculture disciplines; in discussions on the links between trade and the environment; and in the process of analysis and information exchange related to the renewed negotiations.
Ministers agreed that the SPS review should not be used as a pretext to relax present disciplines on the ground of non-scientific arguments. A clear distinction should be made between concerns based on objective and scientific considerations and those based on subjective perceptions. The SPS review should contribute to improve the notification procedures, to provide more transparency and to avoid unjustified and arbitrary barriers to trade.
They noted that despite the undertaking in the Uruguay Round Agriculture Agreement, negotiations in the OECD had as yet failed to develop effective disciplines on the use of agricultural export credits and urged all participants to seriously pursue effective disciplines as a matter of urgency.
Ministers viewed the impact of the Asian financial crisis with great concern. They agreed that the maintenance of liberal and open world markets would facilitate the quick recovery of those countries affected.
Ministers agreed that the Cairns Group would next meet at Ministerial level in May at the WTO Ministerial Meeting to consider further Group strategies and again at Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1999.