Free-Trade Triage

By Snell, Marilyn Berlin | Sierra, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Free-Trade Triage

Snell, Marilyn Berlin, Sierra

On the border, a Mexican doctor treats NAFTA's victims

As leaders of the Western Hemisphere met in Quebec last spring to discuss expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement to include almost every scrap of land between the Arctic and Tierra del Fuego, Dr. Nancy Rodriguez was in a colonia on the Mexican border trying to figure out how to deal with rats. A world away from the high-powered talks in Canada, the young physician found herself at ground zero in the free-trade zone--where aggressive theories of economic expansion find real-life expression.

The squatter-settlement-turned-neighborhood where Rodriguez works is called Derechos Humanos--Spanish for "human rights." Its 15,000 residents are mostly migrants from Mexico's interior, drawn to the border in hopes of finding work after NAFTA went into effect in 1994. When Rodriguez opened the colonia's first health clinic three years ago on the outskirts of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, residents had no running water, electricity, or sanitation. Homes were built of cardboard or plywood, while a fallow piece of land adjacent to the colonia, owned by a Matamoros family named Guerra, served as a makeshift dump. A canal on the colonia's southern edge was used as storm drain, trash bin, rodent refuge, and illegal dumping ground for the industrial waste produced by nearby maquiladoras, or assembly plants.

When Mexico's Border Industrialization Program began in 1965, Matamoros--which is just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas--was a small city with roughly 70,000 inhabitants. Back then, industries from the United States built plants all along the 2,000-mile border, taking advantage of rules that allowed companies to import raw materials duty-free for assembly in Mexico and then export the finished product--also duty-free--back to the United States. Other enticements included low health and safety standards for workers, meager wages, lax environmental oversight, and proximity to the U.S. market. In the ensuing years, companies from other countries built maquiladora plants as well. But the passage of NAFTA, with its accelerated elimination of additional trade barriers, shifted border industrialization--as well as migration--into overdrive.

Though maquiladoras pay some taxes to the central government in Mexico City, they are not required to contribute to the local tax base in any substantive way--which means that border boom-towns like Matamoros have not been able to keep pace with their rapid growth. Matamoros has doubled in size since NAFTA's passage, to nearly 700,000 residents, overwhelming the city's infrastructure.

Water is also a problem. Steamers once plied the Rio Grande, but now the river is shallow and polluted. According to the U.S. EPA, Matamoros will have serious water shortages by 2005. It is a city fueled by free trade, but growing all out of proportion to itself.

There is a difference between the earth and the world, and 36-year-old Rodriguez has come to understand it. The world is that blue bauble seen from outer space, an idea rather than a place with people in it, impelled toward the future by grand abstractions: globalization, liberty, free trade. In the world, there are no limits. The earth Rodriguez walks on each day is something else again, animated by squawking chickens on the roadside; old men selling edible yucca blossoms and used clothing from donkey-drawn carts; children running and screeching in a hard-packed dirt schoolyard; corn sprouting from the soil; asthma; typhoid; dengue fever; rats.

Rodriguez was raised and went to medical school in Matamoros, but not until she ventured into the colonias did she see the links between the health of the body and the health of the air, water, and land. "It became impossible for me not to relate health and environmental issues," she now says. "I had never before been so close to families with basic needs such as water, sanitation, and electricity. …

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