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Nothing Is Free About Free Trade

By Sam Parry
March 19, 2001

Before I traveled to the Texas-Mexican border, I thought I understood the problems of free trade and the almost unregulated export of polluting industries from the United States to less developed countries.

During two years working on globalization issues for the Sierra Club’s International Program, I had studied how poorer countries were unequipped to manage the sudden growth and hyper-industrialization. I had come to understand the danger of the kind of worldview General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch described when he stated that the ideal factory would be constructed on a barge, free to move from one port to the next when people began to ask for basic safety, labor and health standards. I had studied data on the consequences to the environment, to wildlife and to the people of this version of economic globalization.

But nothing in my 27 years on this planet had prepared me for coming face-to-face with the reality in the Mexican border town of Matamoros: the choking pollution, the smells of garbage and human waste, the sights of young children as they ran barefoot through the trash dumps that stretched off in all directions. Entire communities lived next to canals that served as open-air sewers filled with garbage and greenish brown water flowing to the Rio Grande’s tributaries.

Never before had I seen dozens of young children, five and younger, with faces soiled by brown filth as if they had just gotten into a chocolate fudge cake food fight. These were children too poor to afford shoes, who played in the trash dumps where their families survived by collecting, using and selling garbage. It appeared that these children would be lucky to spend one day in school, or even drink one glass of clean water.

I was unprepared in physical ways, too, for this trip. Within less than an hour of exposure to the choking haze, my eyes and throat were irritated and I had a splitting headache. I was not alone. Others on the trip joined in asking for aspirin. Every breath brought the constant, constricting smell of rot and excrement.

While most Americans think that the earth's environment is getting cleaner and many view free trade as a positive force in the world, the scene in Matamoros is evidence for the other side of the globalization debate, that perhaps we aren’t necessarily moving in the right direction at all. Matamoros and places like it around the world tell a different story. They offer proof that today's global trade accords -- so rapidly accelerating the pace of free trade and consumption -- have serious gaps.

This past week, in preparing this story and reflecting on the squalor I witnessed on my trip to Matamoros, I also was struck by the troubling message sent by President George W. Bush as he reneged on his campaign pledge to curb carbon dioxide emissions, the chief cause of global warming. In his argument, he cited the energy shortage affecting California and the West.

Yet the U.S. is the richest, most fortunate country on earth. What kind of message does this decision send to developing countries that face far worse economic troubles? Places like Matamoros, where the people are engaged in a life and death struggle for basic health and safety standards, will only be discouraged by this message. For the decision-makers in these poorer countries, President Bush’s backslide on carbon dioxide will ultimately serve as a powerful excuse to avoid confronting environmental calamities.

Trade policy, globalization, environmental protections, and decisions made by our national leaders in the next few years, particularly President Bush, will have profound impacts on millions, even billions of people here in the U.S. and around the world. Matamoros is a small part of what past decisions, like the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have brought to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The four-day trip to Matamoros was jointly organized by staff in the Sierra Club's Southeast Region, the club's Environmental Justice Program and its International Program to educate participants about problems with NAFTA and the burgeoning maquiladora industry. Local labor and environmental leaders presented slide shows and first-person accounts about the many problems on the border.

We learned about the past natural glory of the mighty Rio Grande (Rio Bravo as it is called in Mexico) and the "Valley" area along the border. The river, which drains parts of eight southwestern U.S. states and forms the border between Texas and Mexico, remains the source of irrigation for one of the most productive agricultural regions in North America. It is also a biological zone supporting diverse animal species. But the region is rapidly changing.

After 90 years of damming and 35 years of welcoming maquiladoras – U.S.-owned factories operating in Mexico to take advantage of cheaper labor and laxer environmental standards – the Rio Grande is not even a shadow of its former wild self. Just a century ago, steamships could travel up the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas, and even farther upriver.

Today, as a result of the manmade changes along the river, the Rio Grande no longer even reaches the Gulf of Mexico, ending with a whimper at a sandbar 50 to 100 yards short of the Gulf. Upriver where the mighty river historically flowed and often flooded enormous acreages of land people now can walk easily across the crippled stream in many places.

While damming of the Rio Grande and its tributaries has decreased the river’s flow, its proximity to the United States and the pressures from NAFTA have brought other changes. Collapse of small farms has forced thousands of peasants into the maquila industries along the border. The number of those factories has risen more than 50 percent and the work force has more than doubled.

As a result, Matamoros – near the mouth of the Rio Grande across from Brownsville – is one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico, indeed in the world. Migrants from the defunct farms and from all over Mexico and Central America flood into Matamoros and join the sweepstakes for jobs that pay $1 to $5 a day and offer few if any benefits.

Wherever you look in this region, the pace of change has avalanched into a human disaster and an ecological catastrophe. It is impossible to peer into this change and think of the "bright side" of global trade agreements. Just one afternoon in this chaotic border city shatters the illusions of an improving world.

Father Javier Bacerra, the Catholic bishop of Matamoros, said it most succinctly in one of the weekend’s panel discussions. "Telling the people of Matamoros that they need environmental justice is like telling a man dying of thirst in the desert that he needs water," he said. The trouble is, given the current set of global trade rules, the situation on the border is more likely to worsen than to improve.

For more than 10 years, environmental, labor and social-justice leaders have warned Washington and governments around the world about the consequences of unrestrained corporate globalization. Yet, even now, the United States and other countries of the Western Hemisphere are quietly negotiating the terms of a hemispheric trade agreement, a super-NAFTA, called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Next month, ironically just before Earth Day, which falls annually on April 22, government leaders and trade representatives from our hemisphere will meet in Quebec City for a conference to polish some of the details of this agreement. Those who watched or participated in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle 15 months ago will find many of the same coalitions of groups preparing Seattle-styled mass demonstrations against this agreement.

For Americans who wonder why all the fuss, Matamoros provides a piece of the answer. The central concerns are that these trade agreements lack basic environmental, labor and human-rights standards. On top of that, the increased consumption spurred by cutting the costs of production on many products has accelerated the use of natural resources.

The basic structure of the modern economic liberalization trade agreement is to reduce the barriers of free trade. Before the end of the Cold War, this mostly meant reducing tariffs around the world to seek the most efficient methods of production. Since the end of the Cold War, however, these "barriers" have come to include what are known as "non-tariff" barriers. In plain English, this means reducing standards of all types, including labor and environmental protections fought for and won over the years both in the United States and around the world.

What this means for the Rio Grande Valley and the people, plants and animals that depend on it for survival is telling – rapid, chaotic, even frenzied growth with few standards, little benefit for the workers and unmitigated disaster for the surrounding natural environment.

According to the United States Geological Survey, "The Rio Grande, and its major tributary the Rio Conchos, is considered to be one of North America's most endangered river systems...Pollution problems include hazardous waste dumps, municipal and industrial effluent, irrigation return flows, and municipal runoff. Both U.S. and Mexican agencies are reporting declines in diversity of border species of fish and wildlife." []

The common refrain from free-trade supporters is that these trade agreements take time to complete the cycle and bring positive reform. Trade agreements are described not just as a means to improve wealth in the United States, but also as assistance to countries in what many economists refer to as "Lesser Developed Countries."

According to residents and community leaders in Matamoros, however, this perspective is alien. Before NAFTA and the maquila industry infiltrated the region, people might not have had factory jobs, but they lived off the land. Life might have been difficult, but residents could drink the water. People in this region might not have had much, but they had far healthier communities.

Whatever the expectations about free trade alone improving the quality of life along the Mexican border, today's reality is a series of communities suffocating under impoverished conditions and worsening pollution. Often families of as many as 10 people squeeze into dwellings constructed of tossed-out wooden pallets about the size of a middle class American child’s treehouse. For bathrooms, the residents dig a two-meter deep hole in the ground in one corner of the home.

As Mexican historian Javier Villarreal Lozano told the New York Times, "A hundred years ago, U.S. employers would have been ashamed of these conditions. Henry Ford’s workers living in cardboard boxes? He’d never have tolerated it." [NYT, 2/15/01]

But today these conditions are cited as examples of growth and progress. For many in the developed world, and particularly in middle to upper class America, these desperate conditions are a case of out of sight, out of mind.

As I surveyed the foulness that so many knew as a way of life, I was reminded of the story of Siddhartha, a prince of an ancient culture in what is now Nepal. Siddhartha had spent his youth shielded from the world. One day, his curiosity about the world outside the palace walls got the better of him and he demanded to see what was out there.

Wanting to protect his son from the harsh realities of the world, Siddhartha's father, the king, arranged a parade into the city, but ordered that only healthy and young people line the route. When Siddhartha by chance saw a group of older men who had wandered near the route, the young prince ran after them only to stumble upon a funeral and see death for the first time. Siddhartha came to question everything he had learned before.

While the United States is far from a perfectly ordered palace of Siddhartha’s princely youth, the vast majority of Americans remain blissfully shielded from the harsh realities of places like Matamoros. An honest debate on the pros and cons of free trade agreements like NAFTA and the FTAA can only be possible when we see and struggle to understand this side of the story, too.

Sam Parry works for the Sierra Club's International Program