PUSHED along by environmentalists and politicians on both sides
of the Rio Grande, momentum is building to create a new
tri-national environmental watchdog agency.
The catalyst is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The pact will come up for ratification in the legislatures of
Mexico, Canada, and the United States in coming months. But
President Clinton says he will not back NAFTA's approval until
Congress passes parallel legislation to prevent industries - and
jobs - from going to Mexico or Canada to escape environmental
regulations in the US.
"We must have some assurance on this," Clinton said in an Oct. 4
NAFTA speech, calling for an "environmental protection commission
with substantial powers and resources."
Opponents say that for a trade agreement, NAFTA already has an
unprecedented green hue, pledging "to promote sustainable
development." To head off the environmental lobby, Mexico, the US,
and Canada officially announced in September the formation of the
North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation.
But so far it's not much more than a name. What this commission
will do, how much power it will have, who will be on it, and how it
will be funded are wide open questions.
High profile watchdog
What Clinton and the environmentalists want is a high profile
commission to monitor enforcement of existing environmental and
health regulations in all three countries.
The Group of 100, a leading Mexican environmental group, and the
Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council are among those
pushing for a commission that includes environmental activists and
academics, as well as government officials from the three
countries. They want the commission to sponsor investigations,
public hearings, and annual reports on compliance with
environmental laws - including those governing toxic waste
disposal, wildlife protection, and water and air pollution control.
The concept is likely to be fleshed out further in Washington on
Feb. 19, when Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona hosts a meeting
on the issue, sponsored by Mexican and US environmental groups.
Critics wonder why another environmental oversight body is
needed if each of the three countries already has one.
"Because enforcement of environmental laws isn't happening now -
and we're not just talking about Mexico," says Lynn Fischer of the
Natural Resources Defense Council.
Also, this environmental body will focus on trade. "The
commission will point out `environmental subsidies' and problems
which could distort trade and become trade disputes," Ms. Fischer
For example, the overcutting of a forest in the Mexican Sierra
Madre mountains could become a trade dispute if it affects the
habitat of an animal that migrates between Mexico, the US, and
Canada. "If Mexico doesn't enforce its protection laws, Weyerhauser
or some other US or Canadian lumber firm could claim that Mexican
loggers have an unfair trade advantage," notes Pete Emerson, senior
economist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas. …