THE North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is like the heroine in the perils of Pauline: Just when it appears to have escaped the clutches of its adversaries, it finds itself once again strapped to the train tracks with a locomotive coming 'round the bend.
The recently negotiated side agreements, designed to penalize governments that allow their companies to gain competitive advantage by flouting environmental and labor laws, should have ensured NAFTA's passage. They have not.
The latest threat to implementing the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada comes from the federal courts. A federal judge will decide whether to reverse a lower court ruling that said the Clinton administration must produce an environmental impact statement on the agreement before submitting it for congressional approval. Ironically, that ruling threatens to unravel an agreement that would bring immediate benefits to millions of hard-pressed United States consumers and dramatic long-term benefits to th e Mexican-US border environment.
It is difficult to reconcile a pro-consumer stance with opposition to NAFTA. Reducing the already low barriers to trade between the US and Mexico will cut the price of thousands of goods moving from south of the border, including food, clothes, and consumer electronics. That is why Consumers Union, the largest US consumer group, has been generally supportive of the accord.
The position of environmentalists that oppose NAFTA is even more difficult to understand. They contend that the agreement will drive large numbers of US firms south of the border to use Mexico as a pollution haven. This is a "green herring." Any US firm that is looking for lax rules on pollution is already operating in Mexico - or Thailand, India, or China. The real issue is not the poor state of Mexico's environment today, but how best to help Mexico reduce its pollution tomorrow.
Mexico's environmental horror story is worst along the 2,000 mile US-Mexican border. Since 1965, unemployed men, women, and children who did not illegally cross into the US to work have been "rented" to more than 2,000 foreign companies (mainly American). These are registered as "maquildora factories" or in-bond processing companies, with many tax and duty advantages. They are limited in their sales in Mexico, and they export almost entirely to the US. Cheap labor provides the basis of the factory towns,
industrial parks, and slums that make such a mess of the environment on both sides of the border.
NAFTA would help clean up this cesspool. It would encourage companies to move inland rather than concentrate along the US border. In addition to reducing the pollution effects on the US side, this would help generate domestic political pressure in Mexico for more rigorous enforcement of environmental laws. It would also create an expanded market for US-manufactured pollution-control devices.
A clean environment has always followed, not preceded, economic prosperity. NAFTA will accelerate Mexico's development and thus its capability to pay for a healthier environment. After decades of US admonishments, Mexico is finally on the right track. If NAFTA's opponents succeed in derailing the accord, no one will lose more than hard-pressed US consumers and those concerned about the environment of North America - the very people that treaty opponents claim to represent.