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Not-So-Free Trade

by Editor-in-Chief Joan Hamilton

From the pine forests of British Columbia to the dusty streets of Bolivia, from the halls of power in Washington to cardboard shantytowns in Mexico, people are struggling with the real-world ramifications of a pleasant-sounding abstraction called free trade. Ten years ago, you scarcely read about trade in the mainstream media. Now it’s a hot topic—and rising to the boiling point, with the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) under consideration and an International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington this fall.

Linking the world economically will make it more peaceful and prosperous, free-trade advocates say. That may be partly true, but “just don’t call it free,” Mark Weisbrot counters. In a probing essay, this economist argues that “free trade” is really a free ride for corporations--with shameful environmental and social costs. In Marilyn Berlin Snell’s profile, we see the NAFTA-induced suffering in the Mexican town of Matamoros. In Jennifer Hattam’s story, we visit Bolivia, where World Bank policies that opened up global markets also helped make water too expensive for locals to drink.

The road to a better world need not be so rocky. Trade can be expanded, but it must be done in a way that protects people and the places where they live. Some valiant activists in the United States and Canada are trying to use trade rules to raise environmental standards for the rapacious Canadian logging industry. (See Paul Rauber’s “Buzz Cut”) The outcome of this and other conflicts will help define what world-trade policies are all about: peace and prosperity for people, or merely for global corporations?

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