Mercosur: Integration, Environment and Pragmatism
By Marcela Valente
The four countries of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) have concluded a long debate with an agreement on the environmental issue, an accord inspired on political and economic practicality.
BUENOS AIRES, (Tierramérica).- After nearly a decade of debate involving governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political realism has predominated over environmental ideals and now, since March, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay possess a Framework Accord on the Environment of Mercosur (Southern Common Market).
The Framework Accord replaces a controversial protocol initiative that had been in discussion for years in the interior of the four-nation integration mechanism. But reactions to the document that was ultimately approved last month have been disparate: some support the pragmatism of it, others consider it a major reversal.
''It is a shorter document, more practical and less ambitious (than the original protocol), but for us it is a step forward,'' affirms Miguel Reynal, president of the Uruguayan NGO 'Fundación Ecos,' which is working to promote sustainable development in the Mercosur nations.
''In our countries there is more than enough legislation with grandiloquent provisions, but there is a lack of implementation because, since they are so ambitious in the beginning, they end up being ignored in practice,'' Reynal told Tierramérica.
In 1998, 'Fundación Ecos,' alongside 15 other NGOs from Mercosur, launched a program on Trade and Environment in order to encourage dialogue with the bloc's governments and create a legal instrument that would serve as an environmental regulation standard in the four countries.
But there are differences of opinion even within this network of NGOs. The Brazilian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, for example, condemns as a failure the Framework Accord signed in mid-March by Mercosur’s Working Group Six in the Brazilian city of Florianópolis.
In the process leading up to the final document, pragmatism won the day, and environmental rights were lost, ones that should not have been left by the wayside, complains the Brazilian group.
The new Framework Accord stresses the need of the Mercosur partners to cooperate in protecting the environment and to utilize their natural resources in a sustainable way, but only as long as it does not stand in the way of economic development, especially in the bloc’s current situation in which it is plagued by economic problems.
The accord states that ''trade and environmental policies should be complementary,'' and underscores that environmental protection should be guided by the principles of ''gradualness, flexibility and balance.''
For the document's signatories, ''the promotion of sustainable development should be achieved through the reciprocal support of the environmental and economic sectors, avoiding the adoption of measures that arbitrarily and unjustifiably restrict or distort the free circulation of goods in services in the Mercosur area.''
The objective of the agreement is ''the protection of the environment and sustainable development through the articulation of the economic, social and environmental dimensions.''
The new norm draws on the commitments of the 1992 Rio Declaration, signed by the participants in that first-ever Earth Summit, meaning the four Mercosur nations are to act in accordance with those principles.
In addition, the Framework Accord proposes the adoption of common policies for environmental protection, natural resource conservation and the promotion of sustainable development. It also calls for the exchange of information both about tools for achieving these goals in each country, and about each government's stance in international environmental forums that involve matters of common concern.
Lastly, the document commits the countries to harmonizing their environmental legislation, ensuring that all Mercosur partners take ''appropriate and opportune'' consideration of environmental matters in their policies, and providing up-to-date information about natural disasters or emergencies that could affect the other members.
As far as controversies that might erupt on matters that are strictly environmental, such as those involving non-tariff trade restrictions, the accord states that they should be resolved through the dispute resolution system already existing within Mercosur, and not through ''direct diplomatic negotiations,'' as the rejected protocol had proposed.
The Argentine Foreign Ministry's director of Environmental Affairs, Raúl Estrada Oyuela, commented that the draft protocol had conceptual defects because it merely re-worked principles and policies already adopted by the countries through binding multilateral accords.
But it also included two controversial issues that were left out of the Framework Accord. The first involved genetically modified products. Argentina had a great deal to lose if a Mercosur agreement were to reject transgenics because must of its soy exports are the product of genetically modified seeds.
The other was a provision on a precautionary principle, which some analysts said could convert that document into an obstacle - one not always justifiable – for free trade within the bloc.
To that extent, Uruguayan activist Reynal commented that when a great deal is demanded, extreme regulations can arise, which are damaging to trade. This would be the case if imports were halted only for the suspicion that they involved contaminated products or environmental degradation, even if it is not proven or is obviously false.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent