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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Paying the Price for Free Trade

Lower wages, more pollution, deformed babies. This is progress?

By Carl Pope

Arough concrete-block wall now encloses the old battery-recycling plant, but that hasn't stopped the frosty patina of poisonous lead salts that stretches past it and down a mud path. "Careful," our guide says to House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.). "The acid from the old batteries is carrying the lead through the wall and down the hill." Below us at the bottom of the mesa, a residential colonia nestles next to a small tributary of the Tijuana River.

That wall is about the only evidence I can find in Tijuana of the border cleanup Congress promised when it adopted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. While the number of assembly plants known as maquiladoras has almost doubled, neither clean water nor sewers or hazardous-waste cleanup has followed. With all the new factories, border pollution has, in fact, increased.

That pollution is coming, for the most part, not from antiquated enterprises like the battery-recycling plant (the likes of which can be found in poor countries all over the world), but from the real emblem of NAFTA sprawling a few hundred yards across the mesa: Ciudad Industrial, row after row of technologically sophisticated, highly automated Japanese and Korean electronics factories that could have been airlifted from industrial zones in Osaka, Seoul, or Tennessee. Ten percent of North America's television sets are now produced in Tijuana, in plants blazoned with blue and red banners boasting "ISO 9002," meaning that they meet the stringent quality-control standards of the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO also gives awards for compliance with international environmental standards, but those banners are strikingly absent.

This is the promise of free trade and NAFTA: First World factories in which Mexican workers use advanced technology to produce television sets, refrigerators, and VCRs as proficiently as Japanese, Korean, or U.S. workers. Here is a powerful engine of economic production, pouring forth the wealth that should lift Mexico economically and environmentally into the First World. Ciudad Industrial on its mesa is the shining city on the hill promised by backers of NAFTA.

Up close, however, that luster is only the poisonous sheen of pollution. Halfway down the dirt road that leads to the colonia is a square opening in the hill, the sewer outfall through which, largely at night, the sparkling factories of Ciudad Industrial discharge their hazardous wastes. Gingerly, our party-which also includes Democratic Whip David Bonior (Mich.) and assorted academic experts, journalists, and Mexican trade unionists-picks its way toward the river, a glistening chemical soup. A few dogs lap at its edge; their hair is falling out in mangy patterns, and they walk splay-footed.

One of the professors familiar with this colonia explains that although drinking water is trucked in, residents wash their clothes in the river and use its water for bathing. Children here suffer a high incidence of serious birth defects, including undeveloped brain stems.

Later, in talks with local community leaders, it becomes clear that the Mexican government has erected a set of stunningly perverse institutional barriers to economic and environmental progress. Faced with a labor force swollen by decades of population growth, the creation of jobs-any jobs-has become the overriding priority. Workers in the Tijuana maquiladoras are paid about 50 cents an hour, less than before NAFTA passed. The low wages are favored by the government and enforced by the local employer councils, despite food costs nearly equal to those across the border in San Diego. Workers cannot afford bottled water, and Mexican law prohibits the local government from taxing these state-of-the-art factories to pay for sewers.

Of course, the highly profitable factories could easily bear the tax burden needed to properly dispose of their wastes. But in its eagerness to attract jobs of any kind, the Mexican government guarantees factories only impuestos symbólicos, or symbolic taxes. Cleanup loans promised by NAFTA through the North American Development Bank sit untapped because, without decently paid workers or reasonably taxed factories, they could never be repaid.

Proponents of NAFTA argue that these arrangements preceded free trade and are solely the fault of the Mexican political system. But NAFTA sanctions and legitimizes these rules by guaranteeing Mexican goods access to U.S. markets, and encourages the spread of such practices throughout the rest of Mexico. Economic growth under such circumstances-however vibrant, however sustained-can never translate into economic and environmental health.

The health in question is not only that of Mexican workers. Those lead salts running downhill from the old battery factory, and the solvents released at night by the electronics factories, do not all end up in the stomachs of mangy dogs. Most flow downstream until they wash over surfers and wading children at Imperial Beach, California.

The Clinton administration is now asking for fast-track authority to negotiate similar trade agreements with other nations, starting with Chile. Republicans in Congress oppose tying future agreements to guarantees of labor freedom and environmental protection, even to toothless declarations such as those with Mexico. For its part, the administration is reluctant to admit that NAFTA's environmental and labor provisions have failed, as the Sierra Club and others predicted.

We will hear much in the coming months about how the engine of free trade will propel the world toward better living and a cleaner environment. But let's wait until it propels Mexico there first before proceeding further.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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