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The Toxic Manna

  En español

By Javier Sierra

Just because it glitters, doesn't mean it's gold.

This is a warning that the trade ministers of 34 Western Hemisphere countries should heed when they meet in November in Miami during the Summit of the Americas. There they will hold a new round of negotiations to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a pact that would eliminate practically all hemispheric trade barriers by the end of 2005.

But before discussing the creation of the FTAA, those ministers should consider the scars left by NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is the model for the new agreement. They need look no further than the US-Mexico border to see how NAFTA has allowed foreign polluters to leave their messes behind and local people to suffer the consequences.

From Matamoros, in the east, to Tijuana, in the west, promises of full employment and prosperity have yielded a toxic manna of environmental degradation and awful labor conditions. The chaotic growth of the maquiladora industry and Mexico's weak labor regulations -conditions the FTAA threatens to expand throughout the hemisphere- have left millions of people exposed to some of the most lethal poisons on earth.

Maybe one of the most infamous cases is that of Colonia Chilpancingo, in Tijuana. In 1994, a smelter called Metales y Derivados, which used to recycle car batteries, moved out of Chilpancingo leaving behind 8,500 tons of toxic waste. The property was built on top of a hill, and now when torrential rains hit the area, poisonous water flood the surrounding communities.

A study conducted while the smelter was still active showed that lead levels at the site were 3,000 times higher than the US allows. The soil and the water are still polluted with arsenic, cadmium and antimony. A survey conducted among 20 Chilpancingo children showed that all of them had alarming lead blood levels. Several cases of anencephaly, babies born without a brain, have been recorded in Chilpancingo. In fact, in several border communities, this horrible birth defect is almost 500% more common than in the US.

Ignoring a Mexican arrest warrant, the owners of Metales y Derivados washed their hands of the situation and returned to the US.

"This is an example of what you get when free trade agreements are negotiated in secrecy," says Connie García, an activist from Environmental Health Coalition, the group that assists the Chilpancingo residents. "There are no tools to protect the workers or the residents, only to protect the companies."

In Ciudad Juárez, only a few yards from the border, a little girl had the bad fortune to fall in a puddle while playing close to the Candados Presto factory. The water was so polluted that the girl suffered second-degree burns on her leg. The incident took place in 1993 and did nothing but to confirm the community's fears, that toxic waste from the maquiladora was poisoning them.

Nose bleeds, skin rashes and intense headaches were common among the residents. A federal investigation of Candados Presto found extremely high levels of cyanide, chrome, nickel and sodium hydroxide, potent poisons that had reached sources of drinking and irrigation water.

In 1994, the factory was finally shut down, but Candados Presto returned to its US base in New Jersey without fulfilling a federal order to clean up the site. Almost ten years later, the soil and water the factory had used remain polluted, and the residents continue to complain about the same poisoning symptoms.

"Candados Presto is an environmental criminal," accuses Cipriana Jurado, director of the Center for Research and Workers' Solidarity, the group that fights the company's toxic legacy. "They betrayed the same community that greeted them with open arms. They came and left like thieves."

Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are two excellent lessons those 34 ministers ought to learn in order to find out what is at the end of the line holding the free trade carrot. What will they have to give up in exchange for the creation of jobs and prosperity? Will their reward also be a toxic manna?

Unfortunately, all signs indicate that the FTAA's glittering promises of prosperity will translate into a toxic awakening for those 34 countries meeting in Miami in November.

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