Rocks in NAFTA's Road are Green

Environmentalists Look Past the Benefits of increased Trade

What is it about the North American Free trade Agreement (NAFTA) that makes it so Vulnerable, labor and industry group? Even gadfly Ross Perot has joined the chorus of naysayers who continue to advance arguments against the pact.

NAFTA, which would create a market of 360 million consumers, still does not have a clear presidential imprint. The Clinton Administration, even at this late hour, has not advanced with clear, unswerving support for the accord. NAFTA's opponents are smelling blood, the kind that gushes from sacrificial victims on the altar of political expediency.

The recent ruling by Federal Court Judge Charles E. Richey, requiring that an environmental impact statement must be drafted before NAFTA can be presented to Congress for ratification, may prove to be a pyrrhic victory for the groups (Sierra Club, Friends Of The Earth and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen who filed the suit.

Mexico had, in anticipation of the economic benefits that NAFTA would provide, embarked on significant environmental policy adjustment. The failure to ratify the pact will not culminate in a reversal of progressive environmental policy but may well result in the delayed implementation of further reforms, both economic and environmental.

Richey's Stunning ruling has carved out a niche for the not-illegitimate concerns of environmentalists. With the determined, if questionable, insertion of environmental issues into the areas of trade and policy, environmentalists, insistent on being seated at the negotiating table, are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with.

The strategy if using the court for pursuing Policy goals has proved to be successful in this case, but are trade discussions and agreements the appropriate forums for these issues? If the ruling stands in spite of the Administration's appeal, it is possible that the United States government will have to ascertain the environmental effects of all of the country's more than one trillion dollars in annual imports and exports.

This federal court ruling also raises important constitutional issues. President Clinton's right to conduct foreign policy and negotiate treaties may be in jeopardy. The fast-track method of Congressional approval of treaties was specifically devised to give the President considerable latitude in negotiating with other countries and to keep agreements from being co-opted by constituent demand and interest groups.

With ecological concerns emerging as a substantial factor and forcing a structural change with regards to multinational environmental decision making, clearly the end of ad-hoc incremental environmental policy making is in sight. Trade promotion, though, is not incompatible with environment-enhancing activities. Incorporating both issues should not be an impossible task. We must, however, be cautious about using environmental regulations as non-tariff barriers.

The primary concerns of the environmental group opposing NAFTA are transboundary pollution and the deteriorating resource base along the 2000 mile US-Mexico border, exacerbated by the proliferation of maquiladoras and their problems with air pollution and hazardous and toxic waste management.

Yet the concerns of environmental opponents to NAFTA are far from uniform. Competing goals and agendas point to a rift which is growing appreciably. There are on one end of the spectrum the prophets of ecological apocalypse, opposed to any kind of further economic integration, and then there are at the other entrepreneurs, such as Anita Roddick of Body Shop fame, profiteering from gestural primitivism. The absence of a uniform vision underscores the inherent difficulty in establishing concrete solutions.

Those groups filing the suit have, for now, appropriated the agenda. NAFTA they claim, provides only a consultative framework and no instruments or mechanisms for meaningful or adequate enforcement. The fear that transborder pollution will be worsened by increased trade between the U.S. and Mexico is a pervasive one.

They continue to ignore the North-South cultural and economic divide which NAFTA can help to bridge. The pace is the first which unites two industrial countries with a developing one. Meaningful action can only be taken within appropriate social, economic and cultural contexts. Mexico's economy is still recovering from 1982's financial crisis. Its lack of technical expertise and enforcement capability is party due to economic constraints.

Yet, because of the economic promise of NAFTA, Mexico has embarked on a series of environmental reforms and policy initiatives. One percent of its GNP is now devoted to expenditures for environmental protection. Mexico is working on expanding the extant institutional framework and expanding the legislative regulatory framework, beyond 1983's La Paz Agreement for border improvement and 1990's Draft Integrated Border Plan, for more substantive agreements.

Mexico has tightened national environmental standards, established a new ministry, the SEDESOL. (Secretaria de Desarollo Social) which focuses on social and environmental issues. It is roughly analogous to the Environmental Protection Agency.

These comprehensive reforms have not defused opposition to NAFTA. A number of other specific objectives should therefore be outlined, including: a timetable for compliance, a proportionate distribution of financial burdens and levying fines on persistent polluters as opposed to across-the-board trade sanctions.