By Donella Meadows
–September 16, 1993–
Environmentalists who worry about NAFTA and other trade agreements like to tell the tuna-dolphin story — though the moral of that story is far from clear.
Schools of yellowfin tuna off the Pacific coast often swim below groups of dolphin. Fishermen look for the dolphin to find the tuna. With their powerful purse-seine nets, they used to scoop up dolphin along with the tuna, killing them by the millions.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 mandated, among other things, that the tuna fleet must reduce the dolphin bycatch. (The law currently permits the fleet to catch no more than 20,700 dolphins a year in order to label the tuna “dolphin safe.”) To avoid this restriction, many California tuna boats moved down the coast to Mexico.
Environmentalists went to court and in 1990 won an embargo against imports of Mexican tuna. Mexico appealed the ruling to GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is the global equivalent of NAFTA. Mexico claimed that the tuna embargo was an unfair restraint of trade.
A GATT panel set up to adjudicate the dispute ruled, to the horror of environmentalists, not only that Mexico was right, but that no nation can discriminate against any import because of its mode of production. That would be equivalent, said the panel, to one nation forcing its laws upon another. This sweeping judgement undercuts not just restrictions on tuna imports, but, for example, embargos against foods grown with harmful pesticides, or tropical timber harvested unsustainably, or textiles made with underpaid near-slave labor.
You see? say NAFTA skeptics. Free trade sets commercial values above all other values. It takes power away from governments and hands it to corporations. Free trade forces nations to bargain down environmental and labor standards to the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, GATT panels meet in secret and keep no minutes. The press, ordinary citizens, and nonprofit organizations are excluded, though corporations are often present. GATT and NAFTA undermine not only the environment and the welfare of workers, they undermine democracy.
The tuna-dolphin story is not the only one these critics can tell. Under the banner of free trade, laws to protect people and the environment are under assault everywhere.
The European Court threw out Denmark’s ban on throwaway containers, calling it a “disproportionate” environmental measure.
The European Community is fighting in GATT against the U.S. gas-efficiency standard for cars, claiming it discriminates against European luxury cars.
The U.S. is protesting on free trade grounds the European ban on meat raised with hormonal food additives.
The Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, in place since 1989, has weakened environmental practices on both sides of the border. Canada’s pesticide and food irradiation standards were based on determinations of PROVEN SAFETY. In the interests of free trade they were lowered to the U.S. RISK/BENEFIT standard.
U.S. timber companies challenged a reforestation program in British Columbia, claiming that it received an unfair government subsidy. The provincial government cancelled the program rather than fight an international trade battle.
Canada’s asbestos producers have challenged the U.S. ban on asbestos in building construction. U.S. metal producers have objected to Canada’s investment credits for installing sulfur dioxide scrubbers on lead, zinc and copper smelters.
The ugliest free trade story is the one about cigarettes in Asia. U.S. tobacco companies, facing an outbreak of health-consciousness in their home market, leaned on our Trade Representative to threaten sanctions against China, Taiwan, Thailand, and other countries, unless they struck down their bans on foreign tobacco and on cigarette advertising. All the countries but Thailand knuckled under. Joe Camel, Virginia Slims, and the Marlboro man strode into Asia, and nicotine addiction is soaring there, especially among women.
You don’t have to hear many stories like these before you begin to oppose not only free trade but trade — which would be a mistake. The outcome of the tuna-dolphin story shows why. Rather than follow the GATT ruling, the U.S. and Mexico negotiated their own settlement, in which Mexico adopted the more dolphin-friendly U.S. fishing practices. Trade was used as a carrot to raise environmental standards, rather than a stick to knock them down.
A trade agreement can protect a nation’s welfare and values or it can devastate them. The issue is not whether trade should be free or not free; the issue is who makes the trade rules for what purpose. The problem with the current drafts of NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of GATT is not that they make trade more free, but that they have been crafted by a few people, in secret, for narrow commercial interests. Concerns for workers and the environment have been added as afterthoughts — as weak “side agreements.”
A more open trade agreement with Mexico could be a good thing. We need trade. We also need health, national security, a sound environment, well-treated workers, and the ability to set local, state, and national standards without having to fight for them in an international court. A NAFTA could come from a democratic process, putting community values at the center of the discussion.
The current NAFTA doesn’t do that.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993