NAFTA's Impact on Labor, Environment

Pact's provisions on environment would help turn Earth Summit goals into reality

IMAGINE it is the week before Thanksgiving and the House of Representatives has just rejected NAFTA. The forces against free trade in North America are congratulating each other for pulling out all the stops - including attacking their former friends and colleagues - to save America from more-open trade.

After the party, the winners will go home to sleep peacefully, assured that their families are safe, that the United States won't become a third-world nation, that dolphins and sea turtles won't die in nets, and that toxic-waste dumpers will stay away.

But, as always happens, morning's arrival will force the dreamers to face the realities of the everyday world: worsened relations with Mexico; no realistic strategy to control the current flow of jobs south, north, east, or west; dampened hopes for Mexicans to have jobs at home and aspire to more decent working lives; and perhaps worst of all, no cooperative framework to address the very serious environmental problems faced by all three nations of North America.

No one can deny that a healthy, wholesome environment and a secure economic future are goals to strive for in all countries. Yet trade and economic development have long been viewed - and in many instances rightfully so - as enemies of the environment.

But one thing we've learned recently is that the two are not exclusive and can be made compatible. This is the biggest success of the collective environmental movement and the message of the Earth Summit last year.

The parties to NAFTA recognize and embrace the economy-environment linkage. This is the first time in history a trade pact does this. Hard work and compromise by governments, industry, labor, and environmentalists in all three countries led to this milestone. The lost goals of the Earth Summit embraced by NAFTA must be ratified.

NAFTA's passage does not mean environmentalists are lowering their guard but that they are consolidating impressive gains. Hyperbole and personal attacks in a time of across-the-board growth of environmental concern and commitment are unfortunate. But even more unfortunate are the attacks on Mexico, as though no environmental progress has been made in our country, or made merely for crass political reasons.

No one claims that Mexico's track record is perfect. Living in Mexico, I am reminded of that fact daily. Notwithstanding its deficits, I challenge any serious environmentalist to find an economically significant developing-country trading partner of the US that has made the kind of changes Mexico has made in the past 10 years. This is a country that has awakened to the fact that a healthy environment is the underpinning of healthy economy, society, and international relations - and whose resolve is on a steady upswing. Mexico recognizes that change will be costly, but that it cannot be avoided.

Full page ads in major US papers by NAFTA opponents have questioned Mexico's commitment to long-term environmental protection. Such ads are the stuff of desperation: Rather than acknowledging the voluntary progress that is being made, they seek to discredit it. In so doing, they undermine what they want to achieve, forgetting that in sovereign nations, environmental progress is voluntary and needs to be acknowledged and nurtured.

Mexico will continue to make environmental progress with or without NAFTA because the Mexican people will demand it. Just last year, a Gallup survey conducted in Mexico indicated that a majority of Mexicans preferred protecting the environment over economic growth and were willing to pay for it. But without NAFTA, the progress may not be as fast, or as friendly to the US. It may be progress, but it will not be partnership.

Ultimately the questions that we face as three nations sharing a continent are: How can we work together as partners to provide our citizens - and their children for generations to come - with sustainable, worthy, dignified lives? Can we work together to help make the largest trading partnership the best environmental partnership on the planet? NAFTA is a way to get there today. It takes the promise of the Earth Summit and begins to make it a reality in North America. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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.

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