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Anti-WTO Groups Kick Off Alternative 'People's Action Week'

Parallel to the trade talks in Hong Kong, protest groups are staging a "People's Action Week" against the World Trade Organization.

Opponents to the World Trade Organization already have kicked off a week of protests, before the WTO ministerial conference even begins.

Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, demanding that the WTO be junked. The peaceful rally was the first event in what activists call the People's Action Week.

Thousands of trade negotiators from 149 countries will begin the WTO's Sixth Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong on Tuesday. They will spend the week trying to forge agreements on reducing trade barriers, especially for developing nations.

However, while many governments, economists and business think increased trade is good for their countries, millions of people around the world have doubts. For anti-WTO activists, lowering trade barriers means increased pressures on poor farmers and fragile industries in developing countries.

The most high-profile anti-WTO events this week will be two more protest marches - on Tuesday, the opening day of the conference and on Sunday, the closing day.

Up to 10,000 people are expected to take part in the rallies. All groups have vowed to demonstrate peacefully, but the Hong Kong police force is prepared for the worst and has mounted its biggest security operation ever. At the 1999 WTO ministerial in Seattle and again in 2003 in Cancun, violent protests broke out.

Mabel Au of Hong Kong's People's Alliance on WTO, a network of grassroots organizations that organized the protests, says the People's Action Week is not only about demonstrations. Anti-WTO groups - most of them from Asia - have organized more than 80 events.

"The "People's Action Week" is going to have many different activities like seminars, workshops, cultural activities, concerts, people's caravans, fishermen's - they are all coming to Hong Kong and have one objective: to protest against the WTO," she said.

Most of the events will be held in a park a few kilometers away from where the trade negotiators will be meeting.

Activities include roundtable discussions on trade and development, a cultural rice festival and a demonstration by Asian fishermen on boats in Victoria harbor.

Migrant organizations will organize an "embassy hopping" day. They will present mock awards to representatives of those Asian countries that export their people instead of creating jobs and to receiving countries that do not respect migrant workers' rights.

Organizers say some of the most important forums this week will focus on alternatives to the WTO. They say if protest groups want to derail the WTO they also need to discuss what it is they want instead.