MIAMI — The greening of U.S. trade policy is taking place in an unusually harsh environment: the gritty manufacturing corridors along Mexico's northern border, where foreign investment has left a toxic backwash of untreated sewage and industrial waste.
Ecology activists had threatened to derail President George Bush's "fast-track" authority to negotiate a U.S.-Mexican free-trade agreement unless the pact incorporates unprecedented anti-pollution strictures. Administration officials initially dismissed the environmentalists as obstructionists. But by displaying a political agility and flexibility unmatched by labor opponents of the free-trade agreement, the Washington-based conservation lobby forced the Administration to put environmental issues on its trade negotiating agenda for the first time.
Despite their misgivings about the Administration's sincerity in attempting to strike a compromise, the ecologists should now declare victory--and cease fire.
In what critics correctly contend is a bid to defuse and divide the opposition to a trade pact, the Administration has agreed to draft a second bilateral accord on the environment--a reversal of its longstanding refusal to link ecological and international trade issues.
Not every ecology group has been placated. But leading organizations--the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council--say they are now ready to voice qualified support for fast-tracking a free-trade agreement if the Administration "clarifies" some of the more ambiguous passages in its environmental plan. By easing its earlier rigidity, the Administration virtually assured that Congress won't deny it fast-track authority before the statute's automatic June 1 continuance.
In its environmental plan, the Administration pledges to work with Mexico in improving cross-border controls over "air and water pollution, hazardous wastes, chemical spills and pesticides" and in cracking down on border polluters; to refer cross-border environmental conflicts to resolution boards modeled after similar trade mechanisms, and to uphold tough U.S. import rules on pesticide residues. Environmentalists would also get seats on official trade-policy advisory committees--another first.
The real victor in this rapproachment is Mexico. Zealously protective of its sovereignty, Mexico would probably never have asked Washington for environmental aid. And if it had, the request might have been squelched by a budget-conscious Congress.
But Mexico could use the help. Last weekend, in the eastern lowlands city of Cordoba, 500 people were poisoned when a parathion plant exploded. The Mexican government readily acknowledged it lacks sufficiently trained inspectors to monitor such facilities.
The irony is that the Administration's original resistance to linking ecology and free trade was basically right. Mexico's environmental problems are indisputably acute, and growing worse. Yet opponents of the trade agreement never explained how these problems would worsen as a result of lower tariffs or liberalized investment rules--or lessen in the absence of a trade pact. Some critics of Mexico's environmental record were transparently attempting to block the agreement, not modify it. And many ecological activists seemed to be objecting not to freer trade, or to the relatively minor differences between U.S. and Mexican pollution codes, but to industrialization itself.
Mexico can hardly devote substantial resources to environmental preservation until its economy starts growing--which depends directly on the industrial development that the free-trade agreement is designed to promote. Mexican officials caustically note that environmentalists never rallied to block U.S.-Canadian free trade despite the two countries' still-unresolved dispute over acid rain. And until the free-trade proposal, the AFL-CIO certainly never evinced much interest in the fragile balance of Mesoamerican habitats.
Throughout the free-trade debate, Mexico has been cast as the environmental villain, despoiling the border environment for selfish short-term gain. Yet for decades, the greatest continuing cross-border ecological catastrophe has been the crop-killing salination of Mexico's share of the Colorado River, caused by the upstream diversion of water into U.S. hydroelectric dams and irrigation districts. The problem was supposed to have been resolved by a U.S. agreement, in 1974, to build a water-treatment plant--a facility yet to operate.
Some environmentalists contend a free-trade agreement with Mexico is an invitation to U.S. industry to evade U.S. pollution standards. But regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency are rarely a decisive factor affecting investment decisions. In any case, companies that cannot bear the costs of compliance will close or relocate, with or without a free-trade pact.