Save The Dolphins Or Free Trade?

Canadians protect their prized Pacific salmon against overfishing by painstakingly counting the catch. New Englanders safeguard Atlantic lobsters by banning sales of the adolescent crustaceans. Europeans insist that imported beef be untainted by artificial growth hormones. These all seem to be laudable efforts. But they have a flip side: Each has raised the charge of trade protectionism masquerading as concern over the environment.

As world trade picks up, such conflicts are intensifying. Already, friendly trading partners are fighting in court or at bargaining tables over trade-vs.-environment issues. Resource-rich developing countries see imperialism in the efforts of industrialized nations to dictate environmental reforms. And in the U.S., pro-environment groups see a dark side to the Bush Administration's efforts to form a North American free-trade zone: They fear U.S. environmental laws will be compromised in the process.

ECO-IMPERIALISM? One battle in this multifront war is being waged in the warm waters of the Eastern Pacific. There, Mexican fishermen harvest prized yellowfin tuna with nets that entangle schools of dolphin swimming above. Thus, tens of thousands of the mammals drown every year. Since 1988, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act has barred imports of tuna caught by such methods. But last September, reacting to a Mexican protest, a three-judge panel of the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT) ruled that the ban amounts to an unfair trade barrier.

The panel decreed that a GATT member "may not restrict imports of a product merely because it originates in a country with environmental policies different from its own." The decision is a time bomb for negotiators who are hammering out a North American free-trade treaty. So far, the government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari hasn't pushed to have the GATT ruling implemented, for fear of generating opposition in Congress to the delicate trade talks. But on Jan. 30, a U.S. District Court in San Francisco extended the ban to 20 other nations suspected of transshipping Mexican tuna. So other countries are likely to join Mexico's protest.

Meanwhile, allegations of U.S. environmental imperialism are cropping up in broader trade talks in Geneva. There, a marathon five-year, 108-nation negotiation is moving toward incorporating last September's decision in a new overall GATT agreement. If this happens, other countries may challenge a panoply of U.S. and European laws that protect the environment and regulate consumer health and safety in such fields as food and clean air. "If this becomes the basis of GATT policy, it would unravel all the strings" of U.S. environmental policy says Environmental Protection Agency Chief William K. Reilly.

`WORLD COLLISION.' If the GATT ruling stands, U.S. trade officials say, it might also weaken enforcement of international environmental accords. Nations that use trade sanctions to protect the ozone layer or migrating sea turtles, for instance, could be challenged in the same GATT procedure. That would make it doubly difficult to stop the clear-cutting of tropical rain forests, for instance. Other potential targets could be the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer, which phases out ozone-killing chemicals, and the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. "We are heading toward a world collision on environment and trade," says Sierra Club Chairman J. Michael McCloskey.

The U.S. itself has accused other countries of using the environment as a tool of protectionism. Last year, for example, Washington protested Canadian rules requiring salmon caught off British Columbia to be landed and counted there--so that the fishery's health could be monitored. U.S. officials argued that the hidden goal was to ensure that Canadian fish processors got all the business. A compromise now lets U.S. factory ships process some fish offshore under the eyes of Canadian inspectors.

Another rule drawing U.S. ire is a European ban on beef from cattle treated with growth hormones. Europe claims the meat is tainted. U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills says the hormones are harmless and that Europe merely wants to protect its own, higher-priced beef from competition.

BLOWING SMOKE. Meantime, the U.S. is being blamed for exporting environmental problems. Asians, for instance, have been outraged by Bush Administration efforts to overturn overseas bans on cigarette ads on grounds that such bans are unfair trade barriers against U.S. tobacco. Nations such as Thailand and Taiwan have noted that America itself has similar advertising restrictions and accused the U.S. of "exporting death."

One solution to the trade-vs.-environment conundrum would be to negotiate environmental issues during trade talks such as those being held between Mexico and the U.S. For example, Mexico will press for its trucking companies to be allowed to transport Mexican goods throughout the U.S., even though few of the vehicles meet U.S. air-pollution or safety standards. In return, Mexico may offer access to its state-owned oil fields.

Environmentalists oppose such trade-offs, fearing that the White House may use trade as a way to weaken U.S. regulations. In fact, former Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, who enforced the Mexican tuna ban only after being sued in federal court, quietly promised Mexico's government last fall to seek congressional repeal of the embargo. "The Administration is working behind the scenes to achieve some of the deregulation that it was not able to get in the open," charges Lori Wallach, a lawyer at Congress Watch, a group founded by Ralph Nader.

Congress is alarmed, too. House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House health & environment subcommittee, are proposing to nix any Mexican deal that imperils U.S. health, safety, labor, or environmental laws. The Senate has balked at lifting the tuna ban. And Senator Max S. Baucus (D-Mont.), who chairs a trade subcommittee, wants to penalize environmentally lax countries with tariffs that counter "ecological dumping." For example, clear-cut timber from Canada, where laws are looser, would carry an import duty to offset the cost advantage that Canadian loggers enjoy.

These issues won't go away soon. Many countries understandably object to environmental rules, says one top U.S. official, once they see what these mean for trade. "What if the Japanese stopped buying our lumber because of concern over the spotted owl?" he adds. "How would we like that?"

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