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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nafta 3-Way

Air Date: Week of

The debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement has divided environmentalists. The disagreements center over such things as NAFTA's impact on pollution laws in the US; the highly-polluted US-Mexico border and the effectiveness of sanctions. In a three-way discussion, Steve talks with Kathryn Fuller, president of the World Wildlife Fund, which favors NAFTA, and Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which opposes the deal.


CURWOOD: In Congress, the House is now planning a mid-November date for a vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement, and as the jockeying comes down to the wire, all sorts of unusual political alignments are emerging. Jesse Jackson and Ross Perot are united in opposition, while Bill Clinton and Senate Minority House Leader Bob Dole are joined in support. And there are also some unexpected rifts - among, for example, environmental lobbyists. Some groups have endorsed NAFTA, while others have gone to court to try to block it. The environmental debate over NAFTA has centered largely on its impact on pollution laws in the US, a concern that's also been raised about global trade talks in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. Much has also been said about the highly-polluted US-Mexico border. But there's more to the disagreement. To broaden the discussion we have two guests today: in Washington is Kathryn Fuller, president of the World Wildlife Fund, which favors NAFTA, and from San Francisco is Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, which opposes the deal.

I'd like to ask each of you to start with your basic pitch on NAFTA. Carl Pope, why don't you begin, then Kathryn Fuller.

POPE: Those of us who oppose this NAFTA believe that it is important to establish a very clear threshold at this moment and to achieve it because if we don't get these kinds of provisions in this NAFTA we don't believe there will be another NAFTA, and we believe that when we go to negotiate GATT later on, we will have a very difficult time making it clear to the rest of the world that the government of the United States will not trade away its environmental sovereignty through the use of trade mechanisms.

FULLER: I think any international agreement could always be improved. I think the bottom line for us is that we don't see the opportunity to renegotiate a stronger agreement. And what has been crafted, while not a perfect document or set of agreements, represents an enormous move forward in integrating environmental considerations, conservation of biological diversity, and so forth into an international trade regime. And that's a new benchmark from which all further trade negotiations will go forward.

CURWOOD: I want to start in right away with some specific points about the treaty. Some people suggest that when trade barriers come down, cheap American produce could flood Mexico and force thousands of small family farmers off their plots because they can't compete with agribusiness. Could you both react to that scenario that's been sketched by some?

FULLER: In fact, it was concern about just that set of issues that brought World Wildlife Fund into the NAFTA debate in the first place. Mexico, as you may know, is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, and there are quite remarkable tropical forests. So if pressures increase to turn the land into large-scale agribusiness, obviously those forests face increasing threats. That's not to say, though, that land transformation isn't going on right now, because trade barriers have come down substantially already. So having a commission on environmental cooperation that has within its mandate ability to look at land use, to quantify existing land use, to create additional incentives for biological diversity conservation, was really critical. So for that reason, we think NAFTA provides an opportunity in a cooperative setting to get at those issues that otherwise simply doesn't exist.

POPE: I guess my view would be that the real threat to Mexican agriculture is to Mexican farmers growing corn. Those are the ones to be most likely displaced by lower-priced corn coming in from the American market. And I think that a mechanism like those used in the European Common Market could have been adopted here. There could have been a carefully phased-in program, with financing, to increase the efficiency of those farmers, to increase their productivity, and to gradually incorporate them into other aspects of the Mexican economy. What is lacking in this NAFTA is a clear mechanism to ensure that this is an escalator upwards for Mexico.

CURWOOD: Recently the President put off a decision to impose sanctions against Norway for whale hunting. Do you believe, Kathryn Fuller, that this calls into question the Administration's willingness to use sanctions in North America, even if they would be allowed by a NAFTA?

FULLER: I really don't. I've been involved in wildlife trade issues since I was the US government's principle prosecutor back in the late '70s. It was my experience then, and it is now at World Wildlife Fund, that the threat of sanctions is a very powerful tool. Certainly, in the context of the NAFTA debate, if they hadn't been viewed as real, you wouldn't have had the pretty strenuous opposition from the Mexicans and the Canadians over the course of the negotiations.

CURWOOD: Carl Pope for the Sierra Club?

POPE: One of our concerns about this NAFTA is that we believe, with regard to global resources, like whales, it's not clear even that the right to impose sanctions would be allowed by this treaty. There is a sanctions section to NAFTA that's been hailed by the Administration as a major step forward; unfortunately, they agreed to a number of loopholes which as a practical matter mean that there will never really be any sanctions, because the Mexican government will be allowed to argue, correctly, that it can't really afford enforcement. But sanctions could have been designed to give individual companies incentive to comply voluntarily. It is their flagrant violation of Mexican environmental law which has created the environmental crisis in Mexico, and it is a real incentive to change their behavior which needed to be in this treaty, and unfortunately, we don't think it is.

FULLER: I do think that there is a pretty powerful there, Carl, because once you open up any environmental dispute to public scrutiny, have some sunshine, as the phrase goes, I think you see a lot of movement, a lot of change in corporate attitudes and corporate behavior. And the sanctions process opens it up so that the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund can ask for, and indeed demand, a lot of that information.

POPE: Well, I'm all in favor of sunshine, and I think sunshine will help. But I think sunshine combined with a realistic probability that dirty companies would not be able to export their products to the United States would work a whole lot faster and I don't think we have very much time left to resolve the environmental crisis in North America.

CURWOOD: I want to turn to one aspect of the NAFTA debate which is a bit unusual. NAFTA has divided the environmental community. There are several major groups supporting the agreement, and several are not. Can you both comment on this? Do you think this is part of a long-lasting split in the environmental community? First, Kathryn Fuller, World Wildlife Fund president.

FULLER: Here I think you've got an honest disagreement about the best way to get to the same place. But as to whether this signals a real split in the environmental community, I certainly don't think so. We all are working towards a common end.

POPE: This has happened before. It tended to happen on issues that the media were not as interested in, and therefore it hasn't tended to get the amount of publicity that this issue has attracted. But there have been a number of occasions in the past on which some environmental organizations had tactical disagreements and I would agree with Kathryn - we're talking here about a tactical disagreement, not about where we want to go.

FULLER: I think it's an affirmation of our pluralistic society.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for joining us. Kathryn Fuller is president of the World Wildlife Fund and Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club.



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