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Sierra Magazine

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Big River Between Us

by Carl Pope

NAFTA divides the United States and Mexico as never before

By the time it bisects Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, the mighty Rio Grande has pretty much petered out, the victim of a prolonged drought and enormous diversions of water on both sides of the border. However tiny, the river remains a chasm--one made wider by NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What happens to garbage is a good indicator of that gulf. The Rio Grande Valley on the Texas side is one of the poorest and most polluted parts of the United States, but at least a bulldozer covers over the day’s garbage at the landfill. When the Sierra Club Board of Directors visited the dump on the Mexican side in February, it had been burning for four months. A few weeks earlier, fire trucks had soaked the smoldering garbage for days to keep the smoke down for a visit by President Vicente Fox, but no one knew how to put out the fire.

Dump fires are often set by scavengers to burn off organic matter in order to uncover metals and other material that can be salvaged and sold. In Mexico as in much of the Third World, dumps are essentially recycling centers, although a far cry from the familiar U.S. facilities where newsprint, aluminum, and glass are neatly sorted into dumpsters, and the only unpleasantness is the smell of stale beer. Prime recyclable items from Matamoros’s dump are skulls and other bones from the slaughterhouse, piled up in stinking heaps to bleach in the sun.

Back in 1993 when it was ratified by Congress, NAFTA promised better. It was supposed to be a new-style trade agreement that would not only facilitate economic progress in Mexico, Canada, and the United States, but protect workers’ rights and the environment through “side agreements.” The U.S.-Mexico border--even 20 years ago the world’s longest toxic-waste zone--was to be cleaned up with loans from the new North American Development Bank, dubbed NADBank.

Since NAFTA, the number of workers in the border assembly plants known as maquiladoras has doubled to one million. Baja California now generates three times as much hazardous waste, but still lacks waste-treatment facilities. NADBank hasn’t done much, but it did loan Matamoros $14 million for a new, 40-acre, state-of-the-art sanitary landfill. The dump that was built, however, in addition to being on fire, is only 14 acres, and already over capacity. Nothing about it could be described as “state of the art.” The main difference between the new landfill and the old is that Matamoros will have to repay $14 million to NADBank for the new one.

All along the border, more people are competing for limited supplies of drinking water and electricity, generating more solid refuse and sewage, and being exposed to ever higher levels of toxic wastes. NAFTA has left no mechanism to generate money for basic environmental services or public infrastructure: Workers’ wages are too low to provide much tax income, sufficient levies on the factories are not allowed, and tariffs on exports were banned by NAFTA. The perverse structure of the system ensures that none of the benefits of industrial growth reach those who create it.

The people of Matamoros are more than ready to do their part. (See “Free-Trade Triage,”) On its tour, the Sierra Club Board visited a colonia, or squatter community, created by what the locals call invasiones, mass takeovers of private land arranged (often with the landowners’ blessing) by the political parties to provide housing for refugees from economic dislocation or environmental devastation. Known as “Derechos Humanos,” (“Human Rights”), the colonia is only three years old. Some of its residents fled flooding in southern Mexico caused by deforestation, while others were peasants forced off their land by low corn prices, another fruit of NAFTA. (See “Tinkering With the Tortilla,”) Already there are many neat yards boasting bougainvillea and papaya and lime trees. Eventually the city will annex the colonia, but until then its residents lack sewers and electricity to match their sweat equity. What progress the residents of Derechos Humanos have made is despite NAFTA, not because of it.

We might expect that the proponents of NAFTA, faced with the results of their handiwork, would pause to reconsider. After his visit to Matamoros, President Fox did call for a reevaluation of the agreement. But President Bush has never visited the maquiladora zone, nor any of the cross-border colonias on the Texas side of the border, even when he was governor there. Yet he is seeking to expand NAFTA’s flawed vision to the entire hemisphere through the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (See “Tricks of Free Trade")

Like Fox’s visit, the arrival of the Sierra Club Board of Directors in Matamoros had a momentary impact--some of the sites on our itinerary were actually cleaned up for our appearance. If President Bush and the CEOs of the major corporations with a presence on the border were to make a regular habit of visiting the maquiladora zone, that small step would probably improve the situation more than NAFTA has.

But imagine if instead of trying to make it bigger, our leaders tried to get NAFTA right. They could see to it, for example, that trade agreements require that those who profit pay taxes to provide communities like Derechos Humanos with sewers and clean water. Modest duties on goods crossing the border could clean up that toxic divide. And workers in the maquiladoras can only blow the whistle on pollution if their right to organize is as strongly protected as the right of industry to invest. Then, perhaps, by the time the lime trees in Derechos Humanos mature, the Rio Grande will be a crossing between neighbors, not between worlds.

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

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