FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Free Trade Agreements and Environmental Destruction

Uruguayan President José Mujica, addressing the Group of 77 and China summit in Bolivia last Sunday, urged attendees to halt the massive “depredation of nature” underway worldwide by battling the West’s “culture of waste.”  Washington’s “free-trade agreements” in effect throughout Central and South America are products of this culture, and must count among their achievements the destruction of huge swathes of the region’s forests, the poisoning of its waters, and the ruin of scores of its indigenous communities.

Peru’s Awajún and Wampís peoples waged the culture war Mujica described when they protested the 2009 launch of the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA).  The accord granted firms “new access to exploit [indigenous] Amazonian lands for oil, gas and logging,” José de Echave and Lori Wallach wrote in The Hill a week ago, identifying policy outcomes that make the PTPA and similar arrangements “difficult politically,” in U.S. trade official Susan Schwab’s assessment.  A political difficulty in June 2009 was the crowd of men, women, and children “blocking the ‘Devil’s Curve,’ a jungle highway near Bagua, 600 miles north of Lima,” de Echave and Wallach explained.

But bullets solved that problem: Peruvian forces unloaded their clips into the demonstrators, and at the skirmish’s end dozens were dead and hundreds wounded.  WikiLeaks cables, just released, reveal Washington’s steadfast support for the Peruvian state at the time.  “The government’s reluctance to use force to clear roads and blockades is contributing to the impression that the communities have broader support than they actually do,” U.S. Ambassador P. Michael McKinley complained, blaming—on the day of the main confrontation—“social movement leaders seeking to make political hay” out of the situation, called a “crisis” in the memo.  How McKinley weighed this “crisis” against, say, the rape of the Amazon, or the systematic decimation of Peruvian peoples and territories, one can only wonder.

The PTPA’s predicted environmental impact makes it a worthy heir to its predecessors.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which turned 20 this year, came after “Mexico implemented a series of major rural reforms aimed at transforming its agricultural sector to promote private investment and growth,” economics professor Edward B. Barbier writes, emphasizing “the 1992 revisions to Mexico’s land tenure legislation” as one of the crucial changes.  These amendments, conforming to World Bank prescriptions, helped dismantle structures of “communal land ownership” that were “capable of overcoming the ‘tragedy of the commons,’” Barbier explains, referring to their ability to mitigate deforestation.  But Meera Fickling and Jeffrey J. Schott, in a Peterson Institute book, point out that “[f]orest preservation is not sufficiently profitable compared with agriculture and use of land as pasture,” hence the current expendability of Mexico’s woodlands, wiped out at a rate of 1.1 million hectares annually post-NAFTA—nearly double the previous rate, according to the Sierra Club—as displaced campesinos, victims of rural reform, clear forests for farmland.

The NAFTA era has been one of deepening ecological depredation in Mexico.  “The expansion of environmentally destructive mining activities” there is another of NAFTA’s accomplishments, a study by five environmental and activist organizations notes, highlighting an aspect this arrangement shares with one of its counterparts, the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).  This accord went into effect for the U.S. and El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in 2006, for the Dominican Republic the following year, and for Costa Rica in 2009—in other words, after neoliberalism had ravaged the region.  Friends of the Earth reviewed an additional feature CAFTA-DR shares with NAFTA: “CAFTA’s foreign investor rules are similar to NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which has given foreign companies broad rights that do not exist under U.S. law,” and under which “foreign companies can demand compensation for the impact of environmental and public interest laws on their business interests.”

Mining corporation Pacific Rim, for example, cited protections CAFTA-DR affords investors in the suit it brought against the Salvadoran government.  “The company seeks $301m” and “claims El Salvador violated its own investment law by not issuing it a permit to dig for gold at the El Dorado mine,” Claire Provost reported in the Guardian.  Salvadoran officials denied permission partly on environmental grounds, with good reason: “Estimates suggest that El Salvador is the second most deforested country in the Americas after Haiti, and that 90% of surface water is contaminated,” Provost concludes.  Restored mining activity would threaten this precarious water supply, Blue Planet Project’s Meera Karunananthan wrote last year.  She described Milwaukee-based Commerce Group’s track record in San Sebastián, whose residents have “nothing to show for decades of gold extraction but the famous bright orange waters of the San Sebastián river, a classic sign of acid mine drainage from large-scale gold mining,” with cyanide at nine times—and iron at 1,000 times—the accepted levels.

Extractive operations are equally devastating in Colombia, where a “Trade Promotion Agreement” (CTPA) with the U.S. took effect two years ago, after a decade of intensifying “austerity, privatization, deregulation and export-led growth through trade liberalization,” as York University’s Jasmin Hristov summarized the developments in a 2005 Journal of Peasant Studies article.  This past April, UN official Todd Howland announced that extinction may well be the shared fate awaiting some 40 Colombian indigenous groups, at risk as mining operations expand throughout the country.  “During the last twelve years, over 1.5 million hectares of Colombian land have been sold off to large-scale mining corporations for exploration and exploitation of Colombia’s extensive mineral deposits,” the U.S. Office on Colombia wrote in a May 2013 analysis.  And Friends of the Earth draws attention to the CTPA’s investment chapter, which will “encourage further the boom in multinational investment in mining and oil drilling operations, many of which deteriorate unique ecosystems and displace local populations.”  Investment protections also “facilitate the continued rapid expansion of Colombia’s corporate palm oil plantations,” promoting “large scale deforestation and an increase in global warming pollution” in the process.

The obvious priority of the arrangements reviewed above is to secure investors’ rights, which Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith clarified, in a critique of NAFTA, “have nothing to do with the case for ‘free trade’”— for reasons, we can add, that Adam Smith recognized centuries ago.  Smith, observing that “master manufacturers set themselves against every law that is likely to increase the number of their rivals in the home market,” thought the belief “that the freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain, is as absurd as to expect that an Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it.”  Another economist, the Irish academic and politician George O’Brien, remarked in 1921 that the application of Britain’s nominally laissez faire approach “to Ireland might be translated: ‘Having put a country into a most unsatisfactory condition, leave it there,’” an observation still relevant today, borne out by Washington-backed environmental depredation in Central and South America.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, D.C.

More articles by:

Nick Alexandrov lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 09, 2020
Jason Christensen – John Carter
Conservation Groups Oppose the Nature Conservancy’s Cattle Grazing Development Project on the Border of Canyonlands National Park
April 08, 2020
Melvin Goodman
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Body Politic
Eve Ottenberg
Amid Plague, Sanctions are Genocide
Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun – Weiyan Zhu
How China Learned About SARS-CoV-2 in the Weeks Before the Global Pandemic
Bill Quigley
Seven Disturbing Facts About COVID-19 in Louisiana
Joyce Nelson
BlackRock Takes Command
Geoff Dutton
Coronavirus as Metaphor: It’s Not Peanuts
Richard Moser
From Strike Wave to General Strike
Gary Leupp
Could COVID-19 Kill Capitalism?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Corona, Capital and Class in Germany
Tom Crofton
Aspirational vs Pragmatic: Why My Radicalness is Getting More Radical
Steve Kelly
Montana Ballot Access Decision Suppresses Green Party Voters
Jacob Hornberger
Muhammad Ali’s Fight Against the Pentagon
Phil Mattera
The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?
Rick Baum
When “Moderate” Democrats Lead the Ticket and Win, Down-Ballot Candidates Soon Suffer Losses
Jake Johnston
Tens of Millions Will Be Pushed into Poverty Amid COVID-Induced Recession
Kim C. Domenico
Healthy and Unhealthy Fear in the Age of Coronavirus
John W. Whitehead
Draconian Lockdown Powers and Civil Liberties
Binoy Kampmark
University Bailouts, Funding and Coronavirus
Luke Ruediger
BLM Timber Sale Increases Fire Risk, Reduces Climate Resilience and Harms Recreation
John Kendall Hawkins
Slavoj Žižek’s Virulent Polemic Against Covid-19, and Stuff!
Nyla Ali Khan
Finding Meaning and Purpose in Adversity
April 07, 2020
Joel McCleary – Mark Medish
Paradigm Shift by Pandemic
Matt Smith
Amazon Retaliation: Workers Striking Back
Kenneth Surin
What The President Said (About The Plague)
Patrick Cockburn
The Chaotic Government Response to COVID-19 Resembles the Failures of 1914
Marshall Auerback
The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Opened the Curtains on the World’s Next Economic Model
Vijay Prashad, Paola Estrada, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
Trump Sends Gun Boats to Venezuela While the World Partners to Fight a Deadly Pandemic
Jeremy Lent
Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?
Dean Baker
The Big Hit: COVID-19 and the Economy
Nino Pagliccia
A Simple Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela: End All “Sanctions”
Colin Todhunter
Locked Down and Locking in the New Global Order
Robert Fisk
Biden Says He ‘Doesn’t Have Enough Information’ on Iran to Have a Vew. How Odd, He Negotiated the Nuclear Deal
Wim Laven
GOP’s Achievement is Now on Display
Binoy Kampmark
Boastful Pay Cuts: the Coronavirus Incentive
Dave Lindorff
It’s Spring and I’ve Turned 71 in a Pandemic-Induced Recession
Steve Brown
FLASH! Trump Just Endorsed Bernie’s Medicare-For-All Health Plan
Marc Haggerty
Class and COVID-19: Those Who Can and Those Who Can’t
Manuel García, Jr.
A Reply to Jeffrey St. Clair’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day”
George Wuerthner
How Fuel Breaks Fuel Fires
Marshall Sahlins
Election 2020
April 06, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 and the Failures of Capitalism
W. T. Whitney
Donald Trump, Capitalism, and Letting Them Die
Cesar Chelala
Cuba’s Promising Approach to Cancer
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail