- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

A plea from American pear growers to impose a hefty tariff on fruit from South Africa is testing the Bush administration's commitment to landmark legislation that has forged stronger trade ties with sub-Saharan Africa.

U.S. producers are angered that the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 has allowed South African producers to grab extra market share by lifting a 15.3 percent duty on canned pears. They are pushing President Bush to reinstate the tariff within the next few weeks for South Africa and other countries in the region.

The possibility of diluting a law that the administration supports fewer than two years after its enactment has bewildered South Africa. The United States has worked closely with it in global trade talks and agreed in February to explore a free-trade agreement with the largest African economy.

"The government of South Africa has warmly welcomed the interest and support from the Bush administration to expand bilateral trade," Nomaxabiso Majokweni, the economics minister in the South Africa Embassy, wrote the administration May 20. "What would be the lesson drawn if the first decision taken in this context is the revocation of a trade benefit that has been of modest but important tangible benefit to our economy?"

Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, an industry association in Yakima, Wash., countered that South Africa has no reason to expect duty-free treatment from the United States under law.

"This is a unilateral tariff preference, not a bilateral trade agreement," he said.

The $100 million canned pear market has been stagnant for years as consumers buy more fresh fruit. With the creation of the trade program, the South African share of the domestic market grew from less than 1 percent to 2.7 percent in 2001, according to the International Trade Commission.

Mr. Powers said the less-expensive fruit from South African growers, who also have benefited from cheap ocean-shipping rates to sell on the East Coast, is driving down prices for the entire industry.

Richard Mills, spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, stressed that "no decision has been made" on the pear tariffs and said the administration is considering the request in accordance with the law, which gives the president the authority to reimpose tariffs.

Under the banner of "trade, not aid," AGOA, as the law is known, abolished American duties on African goods such as textiles, apparel and some agricultural products. In exchange, African countries agreed to undertake economic reforms.

The United States imported $8.3 billion in goods from sub-Saharan Africa since the inception of the program Jan. 1, 2001. The action has generated enormous enthusiasm in Africa over the past two years and has helped boost American exports to the region to nearly $7 billion during the same period.

"AGOA is helping to transform the economic landscape throughout Africa," U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said during a trip to Kenya in February. "It is stimulating new trading opportunities for the region's businesses and entrepreneurs, creating jobs for people who have never worked for a weekly wage."

Secretary of Treasury Paul H. O'Neill also touted the program in Ghana and other countries during a widely publicized trip to Africa with U2 singer Bono.

But in a year, AGOA has become a dirty word in the Pacific Northwest, where roughly 1,600 farmers cultivate Bartlett pears that are processed and canned in Washington, Oregon and California.

"This duty change got stuffed down our throats," said Jay Grandy, manager of the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association, a group of growers in Yakima. "We didn't know about it until it happened."

Mr. Grandy said that without the tariff, South African producers can charge $3 to $5 less for a carton of pears normally priced $15 to $20.

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