Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
The Morning NAFTA

By Dan Seligman

Sierra Club Trade Specialist

Touted by Washington and Wall Street officialdom as the "greenest trade agreement in history," the North American Free Trade Agreement has fallen far short of expectations.

A comparison of promises made by NAFTA's advocates two years ago with today's environmental reality leaves little doubt that the Sierra Club and its allies were right. Clearly, the Clinton administration should strengthen NAFTA to truly serve environmental and human needs. Here's the rundown:

Promise: Under the scrutiny of the new North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), created in NAFTA's environmental side agreement, the United States, Canada and Mexico will maintain and enforce high environmental standards.

Fact: The CEC balked when asked to confront Newt Gingrich's War on the Environment. Last August, the Sierra Club joined the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in a petition to the CEC charging that the logging-without-laws rider signed in June by President Clinton represented a "failure to effectively enforce" U.S. environmental laws. The CEC rejected the petition on grounds that it cannot second-guess legislative acts. "In doing so," said Washington, D.C., activist Joanne Lesher, "it narrowed its authority and increased the chances that NAFTA countries will compete for investment by weakening their environmental laws -- and that's just what's happening across the continent."

Promise: NAFTA will promote sustainable development.

Fact: NAFTA has stimulated a host of environmentally destructive and socially inequitable investments. Consider just two examples:

  • Carbon II. In August, this new coal-fired power plant serving Mexico's "maquiladora" export zone began operating in Piedras Negras, Mexico, near Eagle Pass, Texas. Although Carbon II complies fully with Mexican law, it lacks smokestack scrubbers. "On some days, particulate pollution in Big Bend is worse now than in Houston," said Scott Royder of the Lone Star Chapter. Despite assurances that NAFTA would foster cooperative solutions, U.S. and Mexican officials failed to strike a deal to cut the plant's emissions.
  • El Tepozteco Golf Club. In cooperation with Mexican authorities, U.S. and Mexican investors are building a combination golf club/residential/industrial complex in a national park outside the ancient town of Tepoztlan, Mexico. Partners in the project, which is intended as a test case for attracting foreign investment, include two former Mexican presidents and golf legend-turned-entrepreneur Jack Nicklaus. Last August, thousands of citizens rallied against the golf club, deposing a mayor who had approved the project in a secret deal. "Project boosters argue El Tepozteco will create 3,000 jobs," said Tina Arapkiles, regional representative in the Colorado office. "But townspeople and their new mayor believe it would destroy a traditional culture, poison the land with pesticides, drain the region's aquifer and disrupt an important ecosystem."

Promise: NAFTA will provide funds through the new North American Development Bank (NADBank) to clean up the U.S.-Mexico border.

Fact: The NADBank created a shaky funding scheme that relies on government guarantees to attract private investment for water and sewer projects. However, Mexico's peso crisis shook investors' confidence in NADBank guarantees, so they are reluctant to finance projects. As a result, cleanup funds have not materialized while critical environmental projects have languished up and down the border. Unfortunately, the same peso devaluation that reduced NADBank funding has also attracted more polluting factories to the area. "Working families in the border zone's shanty towns are the real victims of this debacle." said San Diego Chapter Chair Lori Saldana.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Clinton administration continues to pronounce NAFTA a success and is sticking by a plan to expand its terms throughout the Americas, starting with Chile. To demonstrate citizen opposition to NAFTA expansion, national staff and the Rocky Mountain Chapter organized a headline-grabbing "Citizens' Summit on the NAFTA Aftermath" at the June 1995 trade ministers' summit in Denver, Colo. It drew environmental, labor, native peoples and consumer interests from the three current NAFTA countries and Chile. As Club Board member David Brower told approximately 150 participants, "NAFTA is operating in total ignorance of our Earth. We have to move from free trade to the conservation, preservation and restoration of our natural capital."

If anything, the evidence to date shows that NAFTA must be substantially improved to protect the environment. That's why Club activists barraged Congress with phone calls last September to oppose a "fast-track" bill authorizing new international trade talks that prohibit the inclusion of environmental provisions.

With new trade agreements temporarily on hold, the Clinton administration has an opportunity to demonstrate that this NAFTA can be good for the environment. To that end, it should use NAFTA's environment commission to quickly negotiate the following policies with all participant countries:

  • Cross-border access to courts to allow citizens to seek redress against individual polluters;
  • A phaseout of key toxic pollutants like DDT;
  • Enforceable, minimum environmental standards -- including toxic release inventories -- for all industries;
  • A requirement that NADBank projects reflect border residents' priorities;
  • A secure funding source for environmental protection and cleanup. Additionally, new protocols interpreting NAFTA language should safeguard high environmental standards and democratize trade dispute resolution.

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