THE BORDER TOWN OF MATAMOROS, located in northeastern Mexico across the river from Brownsville, Texas, was once a quiet ranching and agricultural community. Over the last decade, however, it has undergone a startling transformation. Under Mexico's border industrialization program, which provides incentives to U.S.-based companies to set up manufacturing operations along Mexico's northern border, Matamoros now has over 90 maquiladora factories, many of which are owned by U.S. corporate giants such as General Motors, AT&T and Zenith. Mexico's woefully underfunded and politically weak environmental regulatory program has not kept up with the rapid industrialization. Maquiladora plants in Matamoros operate without the scrutiny and environmental controls they would have faced had they stayed in the United States.
The town's residents are now feeling the consequences of this neglect. Behind the Stepan Chemical plant, and just yards from the small, broken-down dwellings of Colonia Chorizo, environmental tests revealed the presence of xylene at levels more than 50,000 times the U.S. standard for safe drinking water. About half a mile away, in a canal near General Motors' Rimir plant, investigators discovered xylene at levels more than 6,000 times the U.S. standard.
The pollution is visible to the naked eye - orange and purple slime pours out of discharge pipes and flows down open canals, eventually discharging into a sensitive coastal lagoon south of Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico. One can often see dead animals in these ditches. Children, oblivious to the contamination, play at the edge of the murky water. When the Matamoros city dump is on fire, as it often is, the billowing black smoke can be seen from the north side of the river in nearby Brownsville. A visit to the dump itself is like stepping into a nightmare of industrial society run amok. People scavenge among the acres of municipal trash and industrial waste, slogging through pools of black-gray water to find the most sought-after prize - a used industrial chemical barrel in which to collect water at their homes on the edge of the dump.
In the face of these horrendous environmental conditions, some residents of Matamoros have begun to mount a campaign for stronger environmental protection. Working with religious, environmental and political groups in the United States, neighborhood leaders have developed a "toxic tour" of Matamoros. "We have had visits from countless major Mexican, U.S. and foreign media organizations, environmental activists and U.S. Congressional delegations," said María Teresa Méndez, one of the organizers. "No visitor goes away unmoved."
Efforts to call attention to the border's environmental problems have begun to bear fruit. U.S. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt took the toxic tour of Matamoros in the fall of 1991. He met with colonia and ejido leaders while officials of the Mexican, U.S. and Canadian governments were negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In a major trade policy speech to the Institute for International Economics in Washington in July, Gephardt spoke about the environmental devastation he had witnessed. "In Matamoros, some of America's biggest corporations dump toxic waste directly into the water supply - water that turns the colors of the rainbow," he said. "When I stood outside the homes of families living near Mexican factories owned by U.S. chemical corporations, the emissions made my skin burn." Gephardt went on to outline specific initiatives he argues should be enacted before Congress can approve NAFTA.
Environmental issues have moved to the center of the public and Congressional debates over NAFTA, with much of the focus on the U.S.-Mexico border region. Critics of NAFTA in both the United States and Mexico complain that the trade negotiations were put on a fast track to bolster the political fortunes of then-President Bush and Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In the rush to complete NAFTA, these critics argue, the governments failed to develop meaningful proposals to address the border's current environmental and health problems, or to provide the necessary resources and infrastructure to handle what is expected to be a significant increase in U.S. industrial investment in Mexico under a free-trade accord.
Low wage rates in Mexico, often less than one dollar per hour, combined with the Mexican border region's proximity to U.S. markets, have already made the area an attractive "off-shore" manufacturing base for U.S. companies. Favorable customs and tariffs for border industry have strengthened the pull. There are now over 1,800 maquiladora plants along the border, compared with fewer than 500 in 1982. The plants employ over 380,000 people, and have become Mexico's second largest source of foreign exchange, eclipsed only by oil export revenues.
Industrialization of the border has greatly increased the amount of hazardous waste being generated in the region, but tracking is woefully inadequate. Mexico does not keep an inventory of hazardous waste and, unlike the United States, Mexico does not have a law requiring industries to publicize basic environmental data on their operations.
Many of the plants use large amounts of toxic solvents, acids, metal-plating solutions and other chemicals that result in hazardous by-products. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), using information compiled by Mexico's environmental agency, reports that about half the approximately 2,000 maquiladoras in Mexico may generate hazardous waste. The limited environmental testing that has been done near maquiladora parks in the border region also shows the presence of high levels of toxic contaminants associated with hazardous waste.
Mexico's ground-breaking 1988 environmental law requires that most hazardous waste generated by U.S.-owned maquiladoras be returned to the United States. But Mexican and U.S. environmental officials acknowledge that they cannot account for most of the waste. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only 91 of the 600 maquiladoras along the Texas-Mexico border have returned waste from Mexico through U.S. Customs ports since 1987. The GAO concludes that, although Mexico is trying to create a stronger waste-management program, the Mexican government does not know how many maquiladoras are generating hazardous waste, the amount of waste generated or the final disposition of that waste.
Hindering efforts to legally dispose of toxic waste is the lack of approved final disposal facilities in Mexico for toxic waste. According to law, the waste must be sealed in barrels and transported to landfills. There are currently only two authorized sites in Mexico - one in San Luis Potosí and the other in Monterrey in the border state of Nuevo León. Rene Franco, an environmental consultant in Juárez, Mexico, says "the geographic location of these facilities, as well as their installed capacity, are far from satisfactory for existing industry, much less for the industry that will result from a free- trade agreement." The Mexican border had a toxic-waste incinerator in Tijuana, but its permit was revoked this June after neighboring residents protested. Proposals for two large waste dumps in Texas have generated vocal opposition from communities on both sides of the border.
Much of the hazardous waste generated by maquiladoras and other border industries is being disposed of illegally. This January, in a public environmental forum in Monterrey, Mexico, then-Subsecretary of Ecology Sergio Reyes Luján said only 10 percent of the toxic waste generated by industry in Mexico goes to authorized disposal facilities.
The vast desert region of northeastern Mexico is a favorite location for clandestine dumps. In May, for example, environmental officials discovered a dump of over 600 barrels of toxic waste located about 20 miles south of Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas. Investigators have begun to trace many of the barrels back to U.S.-owned maquiladora plants.
Exposure to illegally disposed hazardous waste can occur in a variety of ways. In the border region, children play in open sewage canals which contain waste from industrial parks, and people fish in contaminated streams or use old hazardous-chemical barrels for storing drinking water. Exposure to such waste can have serious health ramifications, including various forms of cancer and birth defects. Recent investigations have begun to bring potential problems to light.
Health-care workers in Brownsville, Texas have documented a skyrocketing rate of birth defects, particularly in the number of babies born with undeveloped brains, a condition known as anencephaly. Researchers have found that anencephaly rates in Brownsville are over three times the U.S. national average. In Matamoros, across the river, researchers have documented at least 42 cases of anencephaly over the last year and a half.
"To date," says Gregoria Rodriguez, a health-care doctoral student and a volunteer at the Brownsville Community Health Clinic, "our research indicates that environmental toxins which are emitted by many of the maquiladoras operating in Matamoros may indeed by one possible cause of this tragedy." After the Brownsville/Matamoros anencephaly investigation received national attention in both the United States and Mexico, health-care workers in other border cities such as Ciudad Acuna and Juarez began reviewing their limited records, and discovered similar anomalies.
Observers say the border's toxic waste crisis stems from two basic problems. First, Mexico lacks sufficient financial resources for a strong environmental enforcement and oversight program. Burdened by a foreign debt of over $100 billion, Mexico spent much less on environmental programs per capita in 1991 than the United States did, even though funding levels in Mexico increased 1000 percent over 1990. The disparity between the amount that each country budgeted for hazardous waste management is striking. In the United States, the EPA had a 1991 hazardous-waste budget of over $300 million, supplemented by significant state spending on hazardous-waste regulation. Mexico, by contrast, had a 1991 hazardous-waste budget of only $2.3 million.
Limited resources also impede Mexico's ability to clean up illegal disposal sites. For example, at the recently discovered 600-barrel dump outside of Juarez, Mexican environmental investigators have been severely hampered by the lack of money needed for testing the ground water and soil samples for contamination. Moreover, Mexico does not have an equivalent to the U.S. Superfund Law, which requires those responsible for generating the waste to pay for the clean-up of abandoned disposal sites. Therefore, "it is not clear whether the land will ever be fully cleaned up," says Texas Water Commission Border Affairs Director Hector Villa, whose agency has helped Mexico's environmental authorities transfer the barrels to an authorized disposal site.
Agreements lack teeth
Another basic problem is that the United States and Mexico have relied strictly on informal cooperation to deal with toxic waste in the borderlands. Under the La Paz Agreement, signed in 1983 by then presidents Ronald Reagan and Miguel de la Madrid, the two countries agreed to work with each other to address a range of environmental problems in the region. Yet neither country devoted sufficient resources to set up an adequate binational system that would track the generation and disposal of toxic waste in the region.
This year, after the border's environmental woes were spotlighted during the debate over NAFTA, the two countries' environmental agencies agreed to deal with pollution with a new "Integrated Plan for the Mexico-U.S. Border." Included among the plan's goals for the next few years are improved surveillance and tracking of cross- border movements of toxic waste, as well as the ability to determine the amount of waste being generated by the maquiladora plants. However, the plan remains strictly an informal agreement.
The integrated plan is the centerpiece of efforts by presidents Bush and Salinas to convince the public in both countries that they are addressing border environmental issues. The Bush and now Clinton administrations also argue that NAFTA will improve Mexico's ability to deal with environmental problems because Mexico's revenues from foreign investment and trade with the United States will increase as a result of the agreement.
Some critics claim both countries should permit greater cross-border cooperation among state and local governments. "It is the border communities that are feeling the impact of this rapid industrialization on a day-to-day basis," says Helen Ingram, director of the Udall Center for Public Policy at the University of Arizona. "It is those communities that can best make concrete progress in protecting their shared environment. But they can't do that if Washington, D.C. and Mexico City continue to insist on tight federal control over U.S.-Mexico environmental relations."
Calls for change are also being heard in Mexico. Alberto Szekely, one of Mexico's leading environmental law experts who helped negotiate the agreement on behalf of Mexico, argues that although U.S. and Mexican environmental agencies have opened lines of communication since 1983, a new agreement is needed that would deal more forcefully with border environmental issues, particularly toxic waste.
Roberto Sanchez, the director of Urban Studies at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, recommends creating a new binational environmental agency. Sanchez says this new agency could be given oversight authority for environmental and worker- health issues in the borderlands, and could help to coordinate the efforts of various federal, state and local authorities.
Many observers feel that without a strong new agreement or treaty on border environmental issues to accompany NAFTA, problems such as the illegal disposal of toxic waste, and battles over new disposal sites will continue. Those concerned with the welfare of border communities acknowledge that the NAFTA negotiations provide a golden opportunity to grab the attention of federal officials in both countries. Says Ingram: "We have not had this much attention to the border in years - and now is the chance for us to get some fundamental changes in the way we try to protect our shared environment. We just hope Washington and Mexico City are taking us seriously."
Postscript: the struggle underway
Proposals for two large toxic-waste dumps in Texas, both of which would be located within 20 miles of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, have spurred unprecedented binational concern among governmental and non-governmental organizations alike. Chemical Waste Management, Inc. is proposing to build what would be one of the United States' largest toxic-waste landfills in the Terrell County, about 100 miles upriver from Del Rio, Texas. A newly formed company called Texcor, Inc. wants to create a landfill for uranium mining and other radioactive waste in Kinney County, near Eagle Pass, Texas. Each of these sites must receive a license from the Texas Water Commission, the state's primary environmental agency, before beginning operation. On June 30, 1993, the Water Commission denied Texcor's application, but the company has filed an appeal.
The two proposals have garnered strong opposition, both in Texas and Mexico, prompting at one point a brief binational citizens' blockade of the international bridge between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Coahuila. The proposals have also sparked formal diplomatic protests by Mexico, and were a prominent issue at the U.S.-Mexico Border Governors' Conference in San Diego, California in April 1992. In an unprecedented move, the state of Coahuila, the municipio of Ciudad Acuna and Mexican environmentalists intervened in the Texas state proceedings to oppose the granting of permits for either of the two sites.
At first glance, the proposed Chem Waste site looks like an ideal spot for disposal of toxic waste, but appearances can be deceptive. Although the landfill would be located in somewhat isolated desert territory, the area's steep side canyons, giant underground caves, sink holes and limestone formations contain several potential pathways by which contamination from toxic waste could reach the ground water supply, says Robert Kier, an expert hydrogeologist hired by the City of Del Rio to evaluate the proposed site. The aquifer below the proposed site, known as the Trinity Plateau of the Edwards aquifer, supplies several fresh-water springs, among them Sam Felipe Springs the City of Del Rio's sole water source. The aquifer also crosses the border into Mexico, although less is known about its exact configuration there. "If pollution escaped from the proposed landfill," says Kier, "there is little doubt that it could reach the San Felipe Springs and other important fresh-water springs in the area."
Opponents of the Chem Waste site are also concerned about the company's history of environmental violations at its other facilities. Says Del Rio City Attorney Jim Bayne: "This company has been assessed some of the largest penalties for violations of hazardous-waste laws in the United States." A report by Greenpeace brands Chemical Waste Management's parent company, Waste Management, Inc. as "one of the world's biggest polluters." Greenpeace based its assessment on the company's record-setting payment of over $45 million in penalties and settlements in environmental cases over the last decade.
Opponents of Texcor, on the other hand, are concerned that the company does not have a track record to show it can safely operate its proposed radioactive waste dump. According to Madge Belcher, a long-time Kinney County rancher and president of Communities Against Radioactive Environment (CARE), Texcor has never operated any waste-management site or any other type of industrial facility.
But what seems to most frustrate opponents on both sides of the border is the contradiction between current governmental efforts to clean up the Rio Grande - spurred on by the desire to eliminate environmental objections to NAFTA - and the thought of major toxic-waste facilities being located nearby.
"It is incredible for the United States, on the one hand, to expect the government of Mexico to spend over $400 million to clean up the Rio Grande," says Belcher, "and, on the other hand, to sanction radioactive and hazardous waste dumps close to that same river."
|APPROXIMATE NUMBER OF U.S. COMPANIES NOW OPERATING IN MEXICAN FREE TRADE ZONES (MAQUILADORAS)||1750|
|PERCENTAGE OF A RANDOM SAMPLE OF U.S. MAQUILADORA PLANTS FOUND BY A 1992 U.S. GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE STUDY TO BE IN COMPLIANCE WITH MEXICAN ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS||0%|
|PERCENTAGE OF U.S. MAQUILADORA COMPANIES THAT HAVE COMPLIED WITH LEGAL REQUIREMENTS THAT THEY RETURN HAZARDOUS WASTE TO THE UNITED STATES FOR TREATMENT||5%|
|PERCENTAGE OF COMPANIES THAT RELOCATED TO THE MAQUILADORA CITY OF MEXICALI ADMITTING THAT LAX ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION WAS AN IMPORTANT FACTOR IN THEIR DECISION TO RELOCATE||26%|
|ESTIMATE OF THE NUMBER OF GALLONS OF UNTREATED SEWAGE DUMPED DAILY INTO THE RIO GRANDE FROM MAQUILADORA FREE TRADE ZONES||100 MIL|
|NUMBER OF VIRUSES CAPABLE OF CAUSING POLIO, DYSENTERY, CHOLERA, TYPHOID, MENINGITIS OR HEPATITIS FOUND IN THE NEW RIVER, WHICH RUNS NORTH FROM MEXICALI||15|
|ESTIMATED COSTS OF PROVIDING SEWER AND WATER TREATMENT FACILITIES FOR WORKERS EMPLOYED IN THE MAQUILADORA PLANTS||$6.5 BIL|
|TAXES PAID TO THE MEXICAN GOVERNMENT ON PROFITS MADE BY U.S. MAQUILADORA PLANTS||$0.00|
Source: the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
BECAUSE NAFTA REDUCES the authority of federal and state governments to control foreign investment in the resource sector, or to limit the export of vital natural resources, it will entrench and even accelerate the unsustainable patterns of resource exploitation that have already led to serious crises in several resource sectors.
Under the rules of free trade embodied in NAFTA, and with few exceptions, each NAFTA country is required to provide other parties the same access to its natural resources that it allows its own citizens and domestic industry. Nor can governments discriminate against foreign companies or markets by imposing export taxes or other charges. Moreover, under the proportionality clauses of NAFTA, foreign access to a share of natural resources is guaranteed for as long as those resources last, no matter how severe domestic shortages become.
In addition, NAFTA provides special status to government subsidies for oil and gas megaprojects, protecting them from the challenge that they represent unfair trade practices, while leaving government support for efficiency and conservation entirely vulnerable to such attack.
Export control and sustainable resource management
All three NAFTA parties currently control the export of some natural resources in order to conserve those resources and promote local economic development. Resource export controls have an immediate and obvious impact upon the rate at which those resources are exploited. Moreover, by restricting the export of unprocessed resources like logs, fish or energy, governments encourage processing to take place in communities close to the resource base. Because local communities derive more value from their resources, the resource base becomes more valuable for those most dependent upon them.
For resource-based communities, this means a more dynamic and diverse economy, and ultimately a greater stake in sustainable resource management. For government, the result means more tax revenue from the economic activity that now takes place within its jurisdiction. This in turn means having the fiscal resources needed to invest in resource enhancement and conservation measures, and a stronger rationale for doing so, because now such public expenditures benefit a broad processing and manufacturing community and not just harvesting industries.
On the other hand, without the ability to ban the export of resources, or to require local processing, the economies of resource-based communities become poorer and less diverse. Income becomes entirely dependent upon the rate at which the resource is extracted - and the viability of local economies becomes far more vulnerable to commodity price trends, which are notoriously unstable.
Considered in this light, the ability to control resource exports is vital for any government seeking to implement sustainable resource management programs. Yet it is precisely this prerogative that NAFTA will remove by making it virtually impossible for Mexico, Canada or the United States to regulate exports of vital natural resources.
Clearly export controls provide no guarantee that governments will implement sustainable resource management strategies. However, without the authority to regulate or tax exports, governments are simply without the tools needed to pursue more sustainable policies, however compelling the environmental or economic imperatives may become.
One example of collisions that have and will continue to take place between resource management objectives and the rules of free trade comes from the first dispute to be resolved under the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (the prototype for NAFTA). The case involved a challenge by the United States to a Canadian fisheries management regulation for West coast salmon and herring fisheries.
The Canadian regulation required that all salmon and herring be landed in Canada for inspection and biological sampling before being exported to U.S. markets. Canada insisted this measure was essential if it was to deter false reporting and ensure that foreign fishing boats respected regulatory limits set for the domestic fishing fleet.
In upholding the U.S. challenge to the regulations, the dispute panel held that a country could maintain export controls for resource conservation purposes only when the country can show that its export embargo "would have been adopted for conservation reasons alone," and that the same purpose could not have been accomplished by other means. This is a test that few, if any, environmental regulations could hope to pass, particularly where administered by trade bureaucrats.
The Canada-U.S. trade panel refused to make any distinction between the rights of domestic and foreign fishing companies. While this is entirely consistent with the rules of free trade, it is fundamentally incompatible with the notion that the opportunity to exploit a resource must bear some relationship to the responsibility to manage and care for it. Giving foreign fishing companies the same right to exploit coastal fish resources as those enjoyed by domestic producers guarantees the right of all to exploit a resource for which no effective management authority exists.
Increasing consumption of non-renewable energy resources
The section of NAFTA dealing with the energy sector represents a radical departure from the theory of free trade. It encourages all three governments to subsidize oil and gas exploration and development, by sheltering these subsidies from countervailing duty actions. Thus, under NAFTA's rules, efficiency and conservation measures will be competing with energy imports that will often have the benefit of substantial government subsidies. Moreover, NAFTA prohibits the use of import taxes or charges to offset such subsidies and create a "level playing field" for demand-side, efficiency-oriented alternatives. Furthermore, because government support for efficiency and conservation is given no similar protection under NAFTA, these programs are vulnerable to trade sanctions. This blatant double standard will further undermine the ability of efficiency and conservation initiatives to compete on this lop-sided and supply- oriented playing field.
There are a host of other ways in which NAFTA would defeat efforts to reduce extravagant and uncompetitive energy appetites:
An alternative resource agenda
The effect of NAFTA rules for resource trade will significantly increase pressures to exploit diminishing resources while undermining the ability of governments to constrain these forces. Indeed, it would be difficult to devise rules of trade that would be more damaging to the prospects of sustainable development. That NAFTA could seek to entrench such unsustainable resource policies, is a testament to the undemocratic way in which this trade agreement was negotiated by administrations that are distinguished by their indifference to the ecological problems that loom ahead.
If trade agreements are to foster rather than undermine efforts to achieve sustainable resource management objectives, they must preserve and even enhance the regulatory prerogatives of governments, not strive to eliminate them. In the area of resources management this means:
It is critical that the serious contradictions that exist between the policies of free trade and those needed to ensure the sustainable management of vital natural resources be addressed before they are enshrined in international trade agreements.
- Steven Shrybman, staff member of the Canadian Environmental Law Association
At the time, NAFTA critics argued that side agreements could not possibly cure the fundamental problems with the overall agreement - but they certainly expected the side agreements to go further than they ultimately did. NAFTA analysts have generally described the environmental side agreement as more far-reaching than the Labor Agreement, but careful scrutiny of the Environmental Agreement shows that it is essentially toothless.
The centerpiece of the Environmental Agreement is the creation of a North American Environmental Commission, which will have some minimal power to sanction countries that engage in persistent pattern of refusal to enforce their own environmental laws. But, as even Mexico's top trade negotiator has acknowledged, the procedures the Commission will have to follow before it will be able to levy fines or other sanctions are so tortured that there is little chance the Commission will ever impose sanctions.
In what the Journal of Commerce called "an apparent attempt to address concerns about national sovereignty and the amount of fines that may accrue to Mexico under the agreement," Mexican Commerce Secretary Serra Puche told the Mexican Congress in August 1993 that "the time frame of the process makes it very improbable that the stage of sanction could be reached."
The actual enforcement process is so complicated it almost defies description.
First, if a country appears to be engaging in a pattern of non enforcement of its environmental laws, the complaining country must conduct informal consultations to try and resolve the problem. If the informal consultations do not bear fruit, a country may ask for a meeting of the Commission. The Commission can make recommendations on how the involved countries (known as parties) should resolve the dispute, but its recommendations can only be made public on a two-thirds vote. If, after 60 days, the Commission has not resolved the dispute, any of the parties may make a written request for an arbitration panel to judge the merits of the complaint, but the panel can only be convened on a two-thirds vote of the Commission. The panel is to deliberate for 6 months, but non-governmental organizations are not allowed to make submissions. After the 6-month deliberation, the panel is to publish an initial report; after a 30-day comment period and within 60 days of its initial report, the panel is to publish a final report. The panel's final report is then delivered to the parties and the Commission. If the panel concluded that there has been a persistent pattern of non-enforcement, then the parties are obligated to devise an Action Plan to resolve the problem. If no Action Plan is agreed on, or the complaining party is not satisfied with it, the complaining party can request that the panel be reconvened - but it must do so within a two-month period, or begin the process all over again. Only at this point can the panel impose monetary fines.
As attenuated as this process is, a country can only invoke it in a limited number of situations:
A narrow vision
Perhaps more important than the ineffectiveness of the Environmental Agreement's enforcement mechanism is its narrow conception of the "environment." Because the side agreement treats the issue of the environment so narrowly, it fails even to address most of the criticisms raised by environmental critics of NAFTA. Here is a sampling of some of the fatal flaws with NAFTA that the Environmental Agreement ignores:
- This article is based on an analysis by Public Citizen.
What these NAFTA supporters ignore, however, is that it is precisely the NAFTA-style economic reforms implemented in Mexico over the past 10 years that have accelerated growing poverty and environmental degradation.
Ask the maquiladora workers who have to drink water from polluted sources, the Tarahumara Indians who can no longer benefit from their forests because of massive deforestation by lumber companies, the coastal fishers who have been hurt by Pemex's oil drilling, or the millions of Mexico City residents whose health-care costs have risen dramatically due to air pollution. Large portions of Mexico's population are being seriously hurt by the county's economic liberalization program. NAFTA will only accelerate these trends and strengthen the government's unwillingness to tackle them.
The other major factor leading to massive environmental degradation in Mexico is the authoritarian nature of a 64-year old one-party state that does not feel compelled to implement laws or to permit significant citizen oversight. The Mexican government has repeatedly promised progress in these areas, but given the record of the Salinas administration, the Mexican people remain rightfully skeptical.
Without a true democratization of Mexican society, billions of dollars and rivers of ink will be wasted before any real progress is made.
Meanwhile, independent environmental organizations in Mexico face the problem of very limited access to information. Environmental impact assessments of major projects financed with World Bank and other loans are very rarely published in Mexico for public scrutiny. Grassroots organizations thus have to turn to colleagues in Washington to obtain this information.
Even when evidence of ecological destruction is in hand, it is unlikely that the Mexican government will be responsive unless pressure comes from outside the country. And even then, as the controversies over NAFTA have demonstrated, the Salinas administration will respond only with limited, short-term measures unrelated to the structural problems that must be addressed.
For example, more than a year after the deadly explosions in the Guadalajara sewage system, no one has yet been prosecuted, despite Salinas' pledge that those responsible would be punished.
When it finds it useful, the Salinas administration has invoked the issue of sovereignty, casting itself, for example, as Mexico's defender against the attacks of ecological imperialists. That sovereignty was sacrificed a decade ago, however, when Mexico opened its doors wide and gave what has become increasingly free rein to foreign corporations.
The issue of sovereignty is but a ruse. The Mexican government is on the offensive because, after decades of unrestricted use of public funds and violations of the public trust, it simply refuses to be held accountable to its own people.
In Mexico, as in most of the countries of the South that have adopted programs of privatization and deregulation simultaneously, wealth and power have become more dramatically concentrated and the majority of the people are more alienated than ever from their government. NAFTA, unless drastically overhauled, would only serve to perpetuate these frightening trends and leave a privileged few free to continue their manipulation of Mexico's natural and political environments for private gain.
- By Carlos A. Heredia, director of international programs at Equipo Pueblo. This article originally appeared in The Miami Herald/International Edition, July 5, 1993
NAFTA, they assert, will solve all of these problems. It will make Mexico a richer country, which in turn will create the financial resources to clean up the environment and prevent further degradation of the natural-resource base. An increased budget will mean better oversight and enforcement, because more personnel can be trained and hired to ensure that the law is observed. Consultants from Canada and the United States can provide much-needed technology for natural resource management and conservation.