The "Atlantica" Economic Zone

A few years back I visited a village in Colombia whose residents had been instrumental in organizing a month-long blockade of the Pan-American Highway. They were protesting the way the government was willing to make investments in building the infrastructure to facilitate the extraction and export of their resources, but unwilling to invest in schools or health clinics or sustainable agriculture. One of the organizers told me “this is the highway where development passes us by.”

I remembered his words when I first read about Atlantica — an effort to create a new economic zone encompassing northern New England and Canada’s Maritime Provinces, making it easier for goods to pass through the region on their way from the Atlantic to the big cities of the midwest. The symbolic centerpiece of the proposal is a plan to expand Halifax harbor and build an East-West highway from Halifax to Buffalo or Montreal. Other plans include massive natural gas terminals and pipelines, the reopening of a closed nuclear power plant, and the “harmonization” of the region’s labor and environmental laws to “remove barriers to trade.” There will be a summit to advance and promote the plan in St. John in early June, and civil society groups are planning a countersummit.

I’m a recent transplant to eastern Maine, one of the regions that’s supposed to benefit from this plan. And we certainly are a region that needs some kind of investment. A few weeks ago I saw a poster in the window of the convenience store where I often get my morning coffee — “Cashier Wanted. College graduates encourages to apply.” When I told a friend about this he replied that two summers ago his daughter had two rounds of interviews for a similar job. A sign of the times.

Like southern Colombia, eastern and northern Maine are regions that have long seen their resources stripped away by foreign investors. Mainers joined the American Revolution in the 1700’s in part because they were outraged that the tallest pine trees had been declared the “King’s Pines” and were being taken away to make masts for the ships of His Majesty’s Navy. Some two hundered years later, the North American Free Trade Agreement has made it easy for Canadian companies to use cheap migrant labor to cut trees in Maine and bring the raw logs over the border for for processing, cutting Mainers out of the process altogether.

The rise of the maquilla sector in Latin America and Asia in the 1990’s spelled the final demise of Maine’s footwear and apparel industries — the only sign of their existence is the plethora of “factory outlets” selling tourists clothes and shoes made in China, Jordan, Honduras, and Bangladesh on summer afternoons when its too cold or rainy to go to the beach. The big paper companies have begun moving most of their production offshore too. The Maine Department of Labor estimates that between 1993 and 2005 new trade regimes cost Maine 18,800 manufacturing jobs — a huge loss for a poor and sparsely populated states.

The proponents of Atlantica hold that our region has been a loser in the era of globalization because of high minimum wages and “union density.” But that arguement doesn’t hold water. Companies didn’t move their factories out of Maine in order to pay someone in another state $4 an hour instead of $7 an hour. They left the United States altogether in order to be able to pay workers $4 a day.

Lowering the minimum wage and weakening unions won’t help businesses set down roots in Maine — it will just make it cheaper and more efficient for companies to move goods across Maine. The jobs created will be restaurant, motel, and fast food jobs — hardly a viable replacement for the skilled manufacturing jobs. As it is, even Maine’s relatively high minimum wage doesn’t allow a full time minimum wage worker to support a family. And the companies that profit won’t be investing their earnings in Maine — the money will go to shareholders in distant multinational corporations.

The “race to the bottom” isn’t a race that Maine can win — many of our communities already hit bottom years ago.

The most promising path to economic recovery for rural New England and the Maritimes lies in initiatives to reverse that race to the bottom by providing new incentives for sustainable industries and socially responsible companies. Maine is creating new incentives for biodiesel and wind power. The state pased landmark legislation to insure that the apparel, textiles, and footwear the government buys are made under safe and fair working conditions — a measure meant in part to level the playing field for ethical businesses. Maine Gov. John Baldacci is now working with anti-sweatshop activists to recruit other governors to join him in a new effort to harness the capital of several states’ procurement budgets to press for changes in the apparel industry and create a viable market for non-sweatshop garments. (http://www.sweatfree.org) And Maine farmers have organized one of the most powerful, innovative, and effective organic growers federations in North America.

The economic future of New England and the Maritimes is best served by promoting small, local, sustainable businesses through higher labor and environmental standards and through the strategic use of public procurement dollars — not by building yet another highway where development will pass rural communites by.

SEAN DONAHUE is Director of PICA (Peace throuth Interamerican Community Action,) a grassroots human rights and economic justice group in Bangor, Maine. Most of his articles and commentaries can be found online at http://www.seandonahue.org



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