Commentary: Taking The Green Out Of Nafta

Environmentalists didn't win much from the North American Free Trade Agreement. But they hold dear what little they did get. A side accord promoting environmental enforcement helped push NAFTA through in 1993. And although it has generally been characterized as toothless, green groups have found it a potent public-relations tool. The side accord allows grass-roots groups to submit complaints to a trinational Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). Citizens in all three NAFTA countries have used the agreement to try to shame their leaders into action.

But now environmentalists charge that the three governments are working together to undermine the side agreement. That's a bad move for officials in Washington, Mexico City, and Ottawa, and not just because it's poor policy to curb citizens' rights. Any effort to weaken the accord will provide fresh ammunition to free-trade opponents on the left, who argue that trade treaties are licenses for big companies to dump pollution in countries with lax enforcement. And for environmental groups that signed on to NAFTA, any rollback makes it hard to support future trade initiatives.

The flap over the NAFTA side accord couldn't come at a more inconvenient time for the Clinton Administration, which is lobbying for normalized trade relations with China. The U.S. government says it opposes any revisions to the NAFTA agreement. Canada, whose officials have said they want more "clarity and predictability" in the process, is the one leading the charge to amend the accord. Critics contend that Ottawa is trying to avoid some bad publicity on pending cases. So at the end of April, more than 100 groups from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. called on the environment ministers to suspend negotiations. CEC officials declined to comment.

At issue are the accord's provisions allowing citizens to file complaints against governments for failure to enforce environmental laws. Complaints must be submitted to the Montreal-based CEC, which then makes a decision whether to investigate. "You get a lot of public attention while the investigation is going on," says David Schorr, a director at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

Environmental groups charge that the NAFTA governments are trying to make it harder for ordinary folk to file complaints. Among the proposed changes is one that would require citizens to provide proof that environmental harm has occurred before the CEC would investigate. That would force grass-roots groups to foot the bill for lawyers and experts, something most cannot afford. Another proposal would keep more of the complaints procedure secret.

As it stands, the process is already painfully slow. There are 17 complaints pending before the CEC, yet only one investigation has been completed, involving construction of a cruise-ship pier at the Mexican resort island of Cozumel. In 1997, a CEC report suggested that Mexican authorities had indeed failed to enforce the law. By that time, work at the pier was done. Yet the government did call a halt to construction of an adjacent tourist development.

HEAVY PROBLEM. This might not sound like the best means of dealing with pressing environmental problems, but it's better than none. Citizens in the Mexican border city of Tijuana won a small victory on May 17 when the CEC recommended an investigation into the charge that the Mexican government had failed to clean up a privately owned lead smelter it shut down in 1994. Meanwhile, some 6,000 tons of hazardous waste sit on the site, just a few hundred meters from the poor neighborhood of Chilpancingo. "We're not interested in bashing Mexico," says Cesar Luna, a lawyer with the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, which is working with Chilpancingo residents. "Our intent is to protect people's lives. If it takes a little embarrassment, so be it."

It also takes money, something both the government and the smelter's owner say they don't have. Still, Luna is not ready to abandon all hope. "The only thing we have is the CEC," he says. But if NAFTA governments have their way, the people of Chilpancingo may not even have that.

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