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The Planet
Wake-Up Call for Clean, Fair, Safe Trade

By Kim Todd

In the wake of the successful Seattle protests at the World Trade Organization summit in late 1999, activists have had to rush to keep pace with the upwelling of concern about responsible trade.

Church Chat: Dan Seligman, director of the trade campaign, preaches the gospel of responsible trade in New Hampshire in July. Accompanying him is Thelma Bebbit, founder of Monadnock Group.

A growing number of people believe the North American Free Trade Agreement and the behind-the-scenes negotiations of the WTO don't provide enough environmental and human-rights safeguards. They fear trade agreements will gut protective laws if they are perceived as barriers to free trade.

Nathan Wyeth is one of those summoned by Seattle's wake-up call.

A high school student in Washington, D.C., he showed up for the World Bank rally in April and watched as protesters with signs and puppets chanted their message at the sleek glass building barricaded by police.

He was hooked. This fall, as trade coordinator with the Sierra Student Coalition, he helped organize a series of screenings of "Tradeoff" - a documentary about the Seattle protests - at 16 high school and college campuses.

"Just like a lot of people, I began to figure it out, and I became more aware of the dangers of not fighting these trade agreements and trade bodies," Wyeth said.

Other individuals and organizations with similar realizations are gathering for the fight.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the West Michigan Group organized the West Michigan Network for Global Trade with Justice. The coalition staged a protest at a world trade convention in May and organized a town hall meeting in September, an event that featured speakers from the labor movement as well as Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop of Detroit. The West Michigan Network includes members of the United Auto Workers, a partnership forged in Seattle that only continues to grow.

"We are building a bridge to labor on issues where we agree in order to find common ground on issues where we don't agree yet," said Dan Seligman, director of the Club's Responsible Trade Campaign. "The relationships at a local level are strengthening both organizations."

In California, Martin Schlageter, conservation coordinator for the Angeles Chapter, helped organize the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention.

Exhibit A at many of these rallies and teach-ins is a lawsuit filed under NAFTA in September.

The Methanex Corporation of Canada, which produces MTBE, is demanding $1 billion in compensation from U.S. taxpayers to cover the loss of California's business. California, in an effort to keep its water safe and clean, banned MTBE, a fuel additive shown to cause cancer and neurological disorders.

"Americans shouldn't have to pay corporations for the right to clean water," said Seligman.

On the policy front, President Clinton has issued guidelines for an executive order on environmental review of trade agreements. The guidelines include public comment and public participation in determining the scope of environmental review. While the Club thinks it didn't go far enough - saying trade-agreement drafts should be made public - it's still a big step, according to Seligman.

"This resulted from the public pressure we created on the administration. It will help ensure that the environmental voice is brought to the negotiation of future trade agreements," he said.

The campaign's biggest setback was the May vote in Congress that established Permanent Normalized Trade Relations with China. This decision scraps the annual reviews where the United States could pressure China on human rights and environmental issues, and paves the way for China to enter the WTO. China could block opening WTO negotiations to further public scrutiny.

In the next year, the Club plans to continue work on replacing the fast track negotiating authority, which speeds trade bills through Congress, with an alternative "right track" trade policy.

The campaign will also keep an eye on the progress of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. This "super NAFTA" would extend free trade throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean and could spur more lawsuits of the Methanex type. It will be the subject of negotiations at the third Summit of the Americas, slated for April 20-22 in Quebec. The Club and other groups hope to fill the streets with protesters energized and educated by Seattle who can launch 2001 with an even louder call for trade that's "clean, green and fair."

Take Action: To organize a responsible trade town hall meeting in your city or to get involved with the Quebec protests, contact the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Campaign for an "Action Kit." Call (202) 675-2387 or send an e-mail to

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