TO many North Americans, NAFTA may be little more than a green light for trade. But some environmentalists in Mexico hope the three-nation pact will also act as an eco-cop.
They want to stop the building of a long pier on Mexico's Cozumel island that will serve cruise ships plying the Caribbean. The pier, contend Mexican environmentalists, would irreparably harm coral reefs considered breeding grounds for marine life that migrates as far away as Florida and Brazil.
Having failed so far to stop the project legally in Mexico, environmentalists are taking their case to the trinational North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The commission was designed to ensure that the environmental standards of Mexico, Canada, and the United States are not swept away in the rush to expand trade.
The activists charge that Mexico is disregarding both its own environmental laws and international commitments to protect the area.
Mexico declared the part of the Cozumel coast where the pier is being built a protected natural reserve in 1980. That's not enough for environmentalists.
''We are sure that Mexico's environmental laws are not being enforced, but even as we prove this again and again, the pier's construction continues,'' says Dona Uribe, legal adviser to Cozumel's Committee for Protection of Natural Resources. ''That's why we're turning to NAFTA.''
If the environmental commission reviews the case, it could prove embarrassing for Mexico, which would once again be dragged into the international limelight for lax enforcement of environmental laws.
Last year the fledgling commission investigated a case of massive pollution in a reservoir in Guanajuato state in central Mexico where more than 25,000 North American migratory birds perished.
That case ended with the commission steering clear of determining blame for the kill-off. It merely offering suggestions for ways Mexico, with assistance from Canada and the United States, could correct the polluted state of the Turbio River Basin and its tributaries.
The Cozumel claim is different: The commission could find that Mexico is not enforcing its own environmental laws. Environmentalists believe the negative publicity abroad could prompt officials to stop construction of the pier.
The pier project has been the target of environmentalists and diving enthusiasts since it was first proposed in 1990.
AT times it appeared the pier would not proceed. Twice the governor of Quintana Roo state - once with French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau in tow - declared the project would harm Cozumel's coral reefs and should be stopped.
The National Environmental Institute, Mexico's equivalent of the US Environmental Protection Agency, continues to maintain that the project meets Mexico's environmental-impact legislation. The institute had no immediate comment on the new legal challenge.
Ms. Uribe's organization and the Mexican Environmental Law Center (CEMDA), in Mexico City, say they do not oppose expanding the popular Mexican island's capacity to accommodate the Caribbean's booming cruise-ship industry. They just don't want it on Paraiso Reef where the new pier is going in.
The Mexico City-based builder of the pier, Consortium H, has said the site was chosen in part because 90 percent of the coral reef was destroyed in hurricane Gilbert in 1989. Uribe claims about 80 percent of the reef has recovered.
The fight, environmentalists say, goes beyond this one pier. ''We will continue fighting for the rule of law in environmental matters, so that existing legislation is applied to everyone equally regardless of political or economic interests,'' said Gustavo Alanis Ortega, CEMDA president. On the pier case, he said the government never required completion of the environmental-impact studies its own legislation calls for.
The Cozumel pier also follows a disturbing pattern in Mexico of disregarding local opposition to development projects in or adjacent to national parks and nature reserves, the groups say.
They point to a salt factory project on land abutting a whale reserve in the Gulf of California, a now-dead plan to build a dinosaur theme park in the Cacahuamilpa caves near Taxco, and plans for an exclusive golf course development that includes part of a forest reserve of Tepoztlanin, south of Mexico City.
The latter project led to violent confrontations last year between local residents and authorities that ended with local officials who acquiesced to the project being run out of town.
Noting the heavy opposition of local residents to the Paraiso pier, Homero Aridjis, president of the Group of 100 environmental organization, said a Tepoztlanin-type confrontation could arise in Cozumel.
''It's another manifestation of the crisis in Mexico's political system,'' he said.