Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

NAFTA and the Environment

Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

NAFTA and the Environment

Article excerpt


Mexico and the United States share both a long border and a long history of economic integration. Mexico is currently the United States' second largest trading partner after Canada, accounting approximately for ten to eleven percent of United States' exports and imports. The United States, on the other hand, is Mexico's dominant trading partner, accounting for more than two-thirds of both imports and exports and far outdistancing Mexico's trade with Europe, Japan, the rest of Latin America, and Canada. The United States is also the major source of foreign investment flows in the Mexican economy, accounting for more than seventy percent of the total. Labor market integration is also very high. Mexican migrant labor has had a large impact on the United States economy by increasing the labor supply--an effect probably greater than that arising from increased United States-Mexican commodity trade, foreign investment or financial transactions. At least ten percent of the growth of the United States labor supply since World War II is due to Mexican migrants.

Not all of the impacts of this deepening integration between both countries, has been beneficial. In recent decades and especially since the inception of the Maquiladora program in the mid-sixties, the environment has become a highly charged regional issue, particularly in urban clusters along the United States-Mexico border. Whether it is the dumping of raw sewage, over irrigation, or overuse of fertilizers, environmental policies and practices in each country affect its neighbor. According to recent estimates, environmental conditions have worsened along the United States-Mexico border over the past decade. Explosive growth has created new jobs and raised incomes, but it has been accompanied by more pollution.

Worsening conditions in the environment along the United States-Mexico border date back to the 1970's and deteriorated even further during the "lost decade" of deep economic crisis in Mexico in the 1980's. It shouldn't be surprising that the proposal to deepen economic integration through a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provoked such a sharp opposition from the environmental community in the United States. According to environmental groups, the increased industrial growth that NAFTA would produce would further deteriorate Mexico's environmental infrastructure, lax enforcement of environmental laws would encourage "environmental dumping" and increased competition would provoke a "race to the bottom," a weakening of environmental standards in all three countries. They demanded that any trade agreements should include strong safeguards against real or potential abuses.

NAFTA was initially opposed by most major United States environmental groups, and environmental group opposition was a significant factor influencing opposition by many democratic members of the United States Congress. From the onset of NAFTA negotiations, Democratic members of Congress pressed the Republican administration of past-President George Bush, senior, to make NAFTA more environment-friendly, and the Bush administration negotiated some basic provisions protective of the environment with the governments of Canada and Mexico. As part of his presidential campaign, past-President William Clinton proposed the negotiation of supplemental agreements on the environment and labor.

When President Clinton entered office, a majority of members of Congress were democrats. However, because a substantial number of Democrats in Congress opposed NAFTA, the President's strategy for seeking approval of the agreement was to maintain support for it among Republicans, while persuading moderate Democrats to vote in its favor. The Republicans were largely opposed to including environment or labor related provisions in NAFTA. The moderate democrats demanded such provisions. To satisfy both constituencies, the President chose to negotiate two supplemental agreements which gave the impression of addressing environmental and labor concerns, but which would not threaten to impose any significant costs on United States business enterprises. …

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