NAFTA's Broken promises

Two years after enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Ralph Nader's consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen is reporting that serious environmental deterioration and related health problems have significantly increased along the U.S.-Mexico border.The findings are detailed in the group's just-released report, NAFTA's Broken Promises: The Border Betrayed."NAFTA begins its third year sinking in a sea of broken promises related to the environment, public health, jobs, and wages," said Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook.During the intense congressional debate over NAFTA in 1993, proponents (including the Clinton administration) offered optimistic projections for standard-of-living increases, reductions in drug trafficking and illegal immigration, and a strengthening of both nations' labor and environmental laws.But NAFTA was to be an unprecedented experiment. Never before had a trade agreement that so rapidly cut controls on investment and increased investment protections been agreed upon by countries as economically and politically different as the United States and Mexico.The controversy over what NAFTA would mean for the environment was emphasized by a division in the U.S. environmental movement. Five major organizations endorsed NAFTA: the National Wildlife Federation, the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Audubon Society. Nation Wildlife Federation president John Hair said at the time that NAFTA would provide "a near-term resolution of some incredibly difficult environmental degradation problems."Such overtly propagandistic appraisals elicited a charge from NAFTA opponents that the mainstream environmental groups were being influenced by powerful corporate contributors who favored NAFTA's passage. Other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Humane Society, the ASPCA, and Rainforest Action Network, opposed NAFTA as an environmental and health threat not only to the border areas but to areas throughout North America.According to the Public Citizen report, arguments that the trade deal would solve environmental and public health problems along the border depended on the fulfillment of 10 specific "problems" and the proper functioning of several new "environmental institutions." These new institutions, operating in tandem with NAFTA, were to provide the funding and oversight to organize large-scale environmental cleanup and enforcement.One "broken promise" was that NAFTA would lure industry away from the border area to other parts of Mexico, thereby easing the concentration of polluters along the border. But Public Citizen has found that, since the trade agreement took effect, the Mexican maquiladora workforce has increased 20 percent, with 85 percent of those new jobs remaining in states along the border.Another NAFTA promise promoted by the Clinton administration was that "in the absence of NAFTA, the amount of hazardous waste from Mexico requiring management in the United States could increase." But Public Citizen found evidence that illegal dumping of hazardous waste along the border actually increased because of NAFTA. In addition, a nuclear-waste dump is under construction in Sierra Blanca, Texas, on the border of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.Several broken promises are related to increasingly foul water and air. In the two years since NAFTA's passage the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, cholera, typhoid, and amebic and diarrheal diseases -- which are attributed to the lack of safe drinking water and proper sewage treatment -- has become more prevalent. The hepatitis rate in the border area remains two to five times the U.S. national average. As both the maquiladora industry and the border-area population have grown under NAFTA, so has airborne pollution from industry, cooking, and car exhaust. Every day 3,000 trucks jam the border station at Laredo, Texas, running their engines and diesel-operated refrigerator units for hours while waiting to cross. Public Citizen documented a 30 percent increase in deaths from heart disease and lung cancer near the maquiladora centers since NAFTA took effect.Other promises, so far unfulfilled, involve two supplemental agreements to NAFTA. One agreement established the Commission on Environmental Cooperation to ensure a high level of environmental protection through open and strict enforcement. But the CEC is riddled with bureaucratic problems and funding difficulties. It has limited authority and no subpoena power to aid investigations. The panel also suffers from having no guidelines to prevent conflicts of interest and it has been given a much smaller budget than originally promised. In fact, Public Citizen found that the CEC has not heard a single case involving the failure of the Mexican government to enforce environmental laws, and has rejected two petitions by U.S. environmental groups involving the failure to enforce the Endangered Species Act.The second supplemental agreement is a pact that established the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank. The BECC was designed to assist in developing border environmental proposals and to certify cleanup projects for NADBank funding. But the BECC has certified only three cleanup projects and NADBank has yet to fund a single project.The Sierra Club has estimated that $20.7 billion would be needed to deal with border environmental problems; the Clinton administration has come up with only $8 billion. According to the Public Citizen report, it's unlikely that even that insufficient level of funding will be sustained.Public Citizen, however, offered several recommendations to limit NAFTA's damage. Among them:* Prohibit the expansion of NAFTA to other western hemisphere nations.* Implement legislative triggers that force the negotiation or withdrawal of the U.S. from NAFTA if the trade deal fails an objective test measuring NAFTA's real-life effects.* Create "a different type of agreement from the United States, Mexico, and Canada ... that protects the North American environment and its residents' health."* Help those already hurt by NAFTA by (a) providing legal standing in U.S. courts for citizens of NAFTA countries to bring citizens' suits; (b) creating a transaction tax on North American trade to fund environmental cleanup; and (c) providing grant programs and no-interest long-term loans to the poorest border communities.

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