Paying the Price for Free Trade: Lower Wages, More Pollution, Deformed Babies. This Is Progress?

By Pope, Carl | Sierra, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Paying the Price for Free Trade: Lower Wages, More Pollution, Deformed Babies. This Is Progress?


Pope, Carl, Sierra


Lower wages, more pollution, deformed babies. This is progress?

A rough concrete-block wall now encloses the old battery-recycling plant, but that hasn't stopped the frosty patina of poisonous lead salts that stretches past it and down a mud path. "Careful," our guide says to House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.). "The acid from the old batteries is carrying the lead through the wall and down the hill." Below us at the bottom of the mesa, a residential colonia nestles next to a small tributary of the Tijuana River.

That wall is about the only evidence I can find in Tijuana of the border cleanup Congress promised when it adopted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. While the number of assembly plants known as maquiladoras has almost doubled, neither clean water nor sewers or hazardous-waste cleanup has followed. With all the new factories, border pollution has, in fact, increased.

That pollution is coming, for the most part, not from antiquated enterprises like the battery-recycling plant (the likes of which can be found in poor countries all over the world), but from the real emblem of NAFTA sprawling a few hundred yards across the mesa: Ciudad Industrial, row after row of technologically sophisticated, highly automated Japanese and Korean electronics factories that could have been airlifted from industrial zones in Osaka, Seoul, or Tennessee. Ten percent of North America's television sets are now produced in Tijuana, in plants blazoned with blue and red banners boasting "ISO 9002," meaning that they meet the stringent quality-control standards of the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO also gives awards for compliance with international environmental standards, but those banners are strikingly absent.

This is the promise of free trade and NAFTA: First World factories in which Mexican workers use advanced technology to produce television sets, refrigerators, and VCRs as proficiently as Japanese, Korean, or U.S. workers. Here is a powerful engine of economic production, pouring forth the wealth that should lift Mexico economically and environmentally into the First World. Ciudad Industrial on its mesa is the shining city on the hill promised by backers of NAFTA.

Up close, however, that luster is only the poisonous sheen of pollution. Halfway down the dirt road that leads to the colonia is a square opening in the hill, the sewer outfall through which, largely at night, the sparkling factories of Ciudad Industrial discharge their hazardous wastes. Gingerly, our party--which also includes Democratic Whip David Bonior (Mich.) and assorted academic experts. journalists. and Mexican trade unionists--picks its way toward the river, a glistening chemical soup. A few dogs lap at its edge; their hair is falling out in mangy patterns, and they walk splay-footed.

One of the professors familiar with this colonia explains that although drinking water is trucked in, residents wash their clothes in the river and use its water for bathing. …

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