As 34 heads of state gather for the Third Summit of the Americas here tomorrow, a concrete-and-chain-link fence put up to keep demonstrators away is a constant reminder of the threat of violence.
Despite that threat, an opportunity may loom to get past the confrontations of recent free-trade meetings. Some environmental groups and other organizations gathered here are pitching practical ideas for trade accords that balance economic growth with environmental standards and social equity.
One such proposal: "sustainability assessments."
These are similar to environmental assessments - now routinely done in developed countries to assess the environmental costs of a proposed construction project.
Sustainability assessments would address the environmental impact of changes in trade rules. For example, if quotas on fishing imports are lifted in the US, what impact might that have on Brazilian fish stocks? Or if a trade regime allows finished lumber from Chile, rather than raw logs, to flow more easily into Japan, does that reduce the number of trees cut down in Chile?
Done right, advocates say, these assessments should surface all the long-term issues in a proposed trade agreement - how it will affect resource management, capital flows, and labor standards, for instance.
A group of 95 nongovernmental organizations from Chile to Canada have endorsed a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) statement calling on "all national governments throughout the Americas" to commit themselves to making sustainability assessments of all significant proposals for new trade and investment agreements. "This got hot just before Seattle," says David Schorr at the WWF. "Both the EU and the US made high-level commitments" to including sustainability assessments in trade accords.
There's a recognition here, too, that the developing countries of the Western Hemisphere desperately need the benefits of foreign investment and access to foreign markets, says Ricardo Sanchez Sosa of the United Nations Environmental Program.
"We are the most inequitable region on the planet," he says. The push over the last decade to increase exports has led to increased growth, he says, but at the expense of environmental degradation, a brain drain, and dire poverty for some.
Foreign investment is needed to help developing countries turn out more finished products. This would likely mean less exploitation of natural resources, and less outflow of educated professionals, since there would be more opportunity for their talents to develop at home. The bottom line: sustainable development, including both environmental protection and economic growth.
Many free-trade critics, including more than 3,000 who registered for a five-day People's Summit here, say that one of the problems with past trade accords is that they have been negotiated in secret (although the final pact was publically debated and voted on in national legislatures).
NAFTA was negotiated in secret, but the negotiating text of the Free Trade Area of the Americas is to be made public - after the Quebec City summit. "I've got to articulate my surprise that anyone would think this could have been negotiated without the involvement of the millions of people it will affect," says Konrad von Moltke at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. "I urge you, get ahold of the 250-page text, and if you can stay awake to read it, make some suggestions," says Scott Otterman of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor