An Invitation to Disaster: Corporate Power and Central America's Environmental Future under CAFTA

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An Interview with Ricardo Navarro

Ricardo Navarro is the chair of Friends of the Earth International and the director of the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology (CESTA)/Friends of the Earth El Salvador. He holds a doctorate in engineering, and has 25 years environmental campaigning experience. He is a recipient of the Goldman Prize and Global 500 Awards.

Multinational Monitor: Who's driving the CAFTA process?

Ricardo Navarro: It is driven by corporations, and they are using governments to make it work.

In El Salvador, for example, there are a lot of Maquilas--those are enterprises that contribute only labor in order to produce, say, a clothing product for export. They are very interested in this agreement in order to support their industry, and the government is their voice.

When they go to intergovernmental meetings, the government always takes private enterprise. Why don't they take labor unions? Why don't they take academics? Why don't they take other representatives from civil society?

One especially unfortunate thing is that the agreement is designed to expand the reach of the market, so that a lot of services that are now being provided to people in the region by the public sector are going to be obtained through private enterprise. That is going to generate a lot of problems in our countries.

MM: So in the Central American countries, domestic industry is pushing the agenda?

Navarro: Yes, domestic industry is in agreement with foreign industry.

Domestic firms are increasingly connected to foreign corporations. In the banking sector, for example, there used to be a bank called Ahorromet. In 1997, it was acquired by the Bank of Nova Scotia. Now they have made a deal with a South African firm.

MM: What's the rationale for the Central American governments supporting CAFTA?

Navarro: What they say, above all, is that it will generate jobs. Jobs are needed everywhere in the world, and mechanization is costing jobs everywhere. The unemployment rates in the region are very high. So that's what the governments say: We're going to have jobs.

Second, they say that competition is good because it makes industry more efficient and productive.

Third, they say that goods and services are going to be cheaper.

These are the three things that the government advertises.

We do not need charity, they say, we just need opportunity. So we have opportunity to enter the international market--that is good for the development of El Salvador and the other countries.

MM: Do you expect that CAFTA, if enacted, will increase exports from Central America?

Navarro: It might increase some exports from Central America, but it's hard to tell whether the these will come from capitalists from this part or another part of the world. It might, for example, increase exports from enterprises where just labor is used. Such enterprises are becoming very common in El Salvador. Some companies hire just women, and pay as little as they can, and export low value-added products. This kind of export might increase.

But at the same time, all of the goods that are going to come from other countries are going to have a very big impact on local production. People are very scared that little agricultural enterprises are going to be destroyed when we get cheaper food imports from countries that have the sometimes more efficient production mechanisms, sometimes even subsidies.

So there will be exports for some sectors, but damage for many others.

MM: What will be the environmental impact of the expansion of the maquilas?

Navarro: Take just one issue: solid waste management. The maquilas generate a lot of waste--they increase the load of garbage in a society that doesn't have the proper means of disposing of, or having some treatment of, the waste. These kinds of issues aren't considered, and there are not effective controls imposed on the maquila's production processes and waste generation. …