FTAA Cooking Up without 'Green' Ingredient
By Diego Cevallos
Experts warn that issues like labor rights and environmental protection are absent from the bi-continental trade accord, the first draft of which is to be unveiled at the Summit of the Americas in April.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is being prepared without any ''green'' seasoning or citizen input. But it comes as no surprise, say experts, because the recipe emphasizes other ingredients.
At the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Quebec, Canada, in late April, the presidents of the western hemisphere will receive a draft text of what will be a trade accord extending from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, implemented in 2005 - if not earlier. The authors of the document, which tops off the process begun in 1994, are largely government officials and business executives.
The FTAA ''silently advances without any debate or consideration of public opinions,'' warns Otto Boye, permanent secretary of the Latin American Economic System (SELA), an organization that promotes cooperation and coordination in the region's economic matters.
''If we do nothing to correct this, we will wake up one fine day from our nap and we will find that the FTAA is already a fact, one that will deeply affect our lives in the not-so-distant future,'' he pointed out.
The accord, conceived and promoted by the United States in the early 1990s, is to create an enormous free trade zone that covers 34 countries in North and South America, with the sole exception being Cuba.
As the FTAA's lift-off date approaches, experts and environmentalists are growing more and more concerned as they find great holes in the negotiations underway and little real debate.
It must be acknowledged that the proponents of issues such as labor and the environment have not been successful in making themselves heard in the FTAA process, asserts a SELA study published in October 2000.
According to Germán de la Reza, an expert in integration and an academic at Mexico's National Autonomous and Metropolitan universities, the lack of debate on the two matters in the FTAA talks should come as no surprise.
Labor and environmental demands are legitimate, he says, but it must be made clear ''that the model chosen by FTAA is purely trade-related,'' and other matters are left in the periphery, they are subordinate.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Business Forum of the Americas has achieved more of a leadership role in the talks than the Committee on Civil Society, though both were created within the framework of the FTAA.
'Important sectors of the citizenry feel that (in the FTAA process) they have not been given the same treatment and equality of opportunities as the business community to express their points of view on the matters… of labor and the environment,'' states SELA.
Before it is too late, we must think about signing an environmental accord in parallel with the FTAA, recommends Marie Claire Segger, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
''The FTAA negotiations should be considered an opportunity to establish clear, appropriate and pertinent rules'' with respect to the repercussions of trade on the environment, maintains Ana Karina González of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.
Both experts participated in an international conference on trade and the environment held in Mexico in February under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as well as other organizations.
At the forum, one of the few of its kind ever held in the western hemisphere, the participants overwhelmingly expressed concern about the fact that no major discussions on the environment have taken place in the FTAA negotiating process.
In Latin America and the Caribbean there are approximately 270 treaties, declarations, initiatives and programs related to sustainable development. Nevertheless, many have no direct relationship with trade.
And the vast majority of Latin American FTAA negotiators agree that discussions on the environment should remain separate from the trade debate.
The economic liberalization process is complicated enough without adding in environmental questions, they point out.
The idea persists in the region that environmental and labor issues translate into a sort of ''neo-protectionism'' for the nations of the industrialized North, according to SELA.
In the FTAA, where issues related to investment, market access and services are negotiated without most of society being aware of it, wealthy countries like Canada and the United States coexist with nations of mid-level or limited economic development.
If the quality standards of the North were applied to the exporting countries of the South, many businesses would simply have to close their doors, emphasizes De la Reza.
But the absence of environmental matters in the FTAA talks is not attributable only to the integration model chosen by the region, but also to the lack of interest and of organization among environmental groups and society.
In October 1998, the FTAA Committee on Civil Society announced ''an open invitation'' to social sectors to make themselves heard on questions related to the talks, with a deadline of March 1999.
Though the Committee did not indicate the number of petitions received in that period, it admitted that individuals and organizations from just 16 countries had participated. More than half of the contributions came from Canada and the United States.
Broken down by sector, 32 percent came from business and professional associations, 15 percent from labor organizations, another 15 from environmental groups, 13 percent from academics and the rest from other types of organizations.
If the countries enter the FTAA negotiations on a separate, unorganized basis, says the permanent secretary of SELA, ''we will have a global and hemispheric legislation and an international environment that has nothing to do with us or our reality.''
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.