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Posted at: Mar 18, 2017, 12:45 AM; last updated: Mar 18, 2017, 12:45 AM (IST)

A not-so-fair exchange

Ratna Raman
A not-so-fair exchange
THE word ‘marine’ (Latin; marinus, old French; marin, and la mer) speaks of  the sea, home to all marine life. The sea also is the waterway through which land animals, primarily humans, embarked upon journeys by water in search of necessities. The word ‘maritime’ from the Latin ‘maritimus’ or ‘mare’ also describes the sea. In use since the mid-16th century, the word is synonymous with naval, marine, nautical and sea-faring activities. ‘Maritime mammals’ are dolphins and whales while ‘maritime climates’ are the moist and temperate weather conditions that prevail in coastal areas around the world.

‘Maritime trade’ involved the exchange or sale of goods along sea routes. Once restricted to nearby shores   ‘maritime innovations’ such as better sails, detailed charts and sophisticated navigational instruments, enabled longer journeys by sea, eventually leading to ‘maritime  voyages’ that saw the setting up of ‘maritime trade’ in spices and textiles. 

 Exchange of goods between sea-faring merchants from China, India and other parts of Asia with wealthy patrons or rulers in Asian countries reflected traditional patterns of maritime trade. Such transactions shifted quickly to ‘maritime control’ as Europe’s ‘maritime nations’ set up ‘maritime empires’. The  discovery of the world by the Portuguese maritime explorers also unveiled an exotic world of spices and stoked the beginnings of maritime rivalries among the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English.

 This saw the start of unequal and ‘unfair trade’ resulting in the genocide of thousands of inhabitants in the Banda Islands (1621) of Indonesia. Subsequently, Dutch monopolies in the nutmeg, mace and clove trade   remained in place for well over a century. Gruesome accounts of the decimation of indigenous communities for maritime monopolies over spices  expose colonial transactions deeply mired in blood. 

Incidentally, the French expression ‘laissez faire’ (live and let live) was coined in the 17th century and  demanded non-interference by governments in matters of transactions carried out by private traders in the ‘free market’. Arguably, ‘free markets’ on land and over water were seldom free once traditional practices of   exchange of goods was transformed into a system of controls and the extensive exploitation of  indigenous people and  local produce.

The expression ‘unfair trade practice’ in current use refers to deceptive, fraudulent and unethical ways adopted in order to sell products. Charters restricting unfair trade practices now exist at local, national and international levels. 

A free market today implies that rules and regulations, subsidies and controls are not imposed on the sale of products. Although we form part of a global order, supposedly free from imperial and colonial control, ‘free trade’ between individuals and nations has continued to magnify and increase imbalances between rich and poor nations. 

Government interventions in the form of regulations and taxes benefit rich nations and continue to deplete poor nations of both resources and cash. NGOs, all over the world, voice the need for ‘fair trade practices’ that factor human and environmental costs in production and provide adequate compensation and safeguards. 

We continue to inhabit an unequal world wherein fair trade practices, so necessary for the survival of civilisations, must be urgently implemented. We can work toward this by recalling older histories, remaining alert to seismic changes and being mindful of the transactions that are enacted.


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