WHILE Congress prepares to debate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the US environmental community remains divided in its support for it. As a field-based organization working in Mexico and Canada, Conservation International believes those groups opposing NAFTA for environmental reasons are being shortsighted: NAFTA will be good for both the economies and environments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion over NAFTA has centered around the effectiveness and enforcement of Mexican environmental laws. In our experience, this should not be used as an excuse to oppose NAFTA - Mexico clearly has the political will to make environmental protection a priority.
Today Mexico has a government that understands the importance of protecting its environment and preventing the depletion of its natural resources. This administration has done more than any other to promote public awareness of environmental issues, develop biodiversity conservation programs, and enact tough environmental laws. The result has been an unprecedented amount of collaboration between the government and nongovernmental sectors and, even more important, several significant environmental success stories.
In 1991, for example, Conservation International and the Mexican government negotiated Mexico's first debt-for-nature swap. The local currency released under this $4 million agreement is now being used to finance biodiversity conservation programs to help conserve tropical forests near the Guatemalan border and the Sea of Cortes marine ecosystem. Soon after, the government created new biosphere reserves to better protect these two areas.
IN 1992, the Mexican government made a landmark and costly decision to reroute a major highway connecting central and southern Mexico around El Ocote, one of the country's oldest nature reserves, so that its fragile ecosystems would not be disturbed. More recently, the Mexican government has been working with some members of the environmental community to foster private-sector support of Mexican conservation initiatives, similar to the charitable tradition that has been established in the US. In May of this year, a group of Mexican business leaders met at the Presidential Palace and pledged nearly $5 million to support local biodiversity conservation projects across the nation.
Most significant of all, Mexico showed strong leadership and foresight by establishing the world's first presidential commission on biodiversity. To create this body, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari personally brought together more than two dozen world-renowned biodiversity experts for a conference at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and the Mayan site of Yaxchilan, and has so far pledged some $20 million to the commission's operations. It is only this year that the US government has made biodiversity conservation an important priority by belatedly signing the Biodiversity Convention negotiated at the 1992 Earth Summit and initiating a US national biological survey.
These examples underline Mexico's political commitment to conservation, facts that have been largely lost in the NAFTA debate. Political commitment is the key ingredient - along with a growing economy and strong laws - to formulating a sound environmental policy framework in any nation. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.