Because much of the U.S.-Mexico border is already considered a "free trade" zone, additional impacts due to the North American Free Trade Agreement are hard to gauge.
U.S. and Mexican environmentalists had
hoped NAFTA would help their communities by strengthening
regulations and forging new agreements on natural resources. But by
the time NAFTA was approved by Congress on Nov. 17, environmental
negotiations were largely scrapped.
resource issues were exempted from the NAFTA side agreements," says
Dick Kamp of the Border Ecology Project in Bisbee, Ariz. The
Canadian, Mexican and U.S. governments will establish a North
American commission to hear grievances on such topics as "chronic
pollution," says Kamp. But the commission will not deal with
deforestation, loss of indigenous lands, overfishing and land
impacts caused by grazing and mining.
the very activities expected to increase in northern Mexico as a
result of liberalized trade and the new infusion of development
funds provided by the World Bank.
"We know the
World Bank is pushing this kind of resource exploitation. What we
don't know yet is whether any environmental regulations will be
enforced," Kamp adds.
Mexico recently passed a
sweeping environmental law called the Law of Ecological
Equilibrium. It requires that projects prepare an environmental
impact statement, and suggests in very general terms that any
environmental damage should be mitigated, says Tucson ethnobotanist
Gary Nabhan. "But the law is so new that there are essentially no
standards for what is or is not acceptable. It's basically
Much of what happens in Mexico ultimately
affects the United States. For example, buffel grass, recently
planted on 5 million acres as range improvement for cattle, has
escaped across the border. The grass has changed the fire regime in
parts of the Sonoran Desert and choked out native species,
according to Alberto Burquez, a Mexican ecologist at the Centro de
Ecologia in Hermosillo. Pesticides and the depletion of groundwater
also affect the United States.
This country is
hardly innocent; the Colorado River, once a critical source of
drinking and irrigation water in northern Mexico, now dries up long
before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. Reservoirs in Colorado and
Arizona are partly responsible for the decline of fisheries in the
In places where free trade is booming, the
environment is not. Already, numerous United States-owned
factories, known as maquiladoras, exist across the Rio Grande and
just south of Arizona in such towns as Nogales, Sonora. There, more
than 90 factories, many of them run by U.S. electronics and
plastics firms, have been built since 1967.
Nogales Wash, which flows between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales,
Ariz., carries large amounts of volatile organic
In 1990, its load of fecal coliform
bacteria was 16 million times greater than what the United States
allows, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The paper also
reported that human cancer and lupus levels on the United States
side of town are five times the national average. With 700 trucks
crossing the border each day, air pollution is also a major
A report prepared last fall for the
Environmental Protection Agency by the Udall Center for Studies in
Public Policy at the University of Arizona, concluded: "The border
is currently in a crisis situation where much more significant
funding has to be provided in the immediate
The report recommended quick clean-up
action, the collection of air and water quality data, and the
establishment of ecosystem protection regulations. For his part,
Arizona Gov. Fife Symington recently created a Border Health Issues
Task Force he promises will address concerns in
But environmentalists on both sides of
the border are tired of waiting for rescue from the government.
Four bi-national grass-roots councils have recently formed
specifically to work on health and environmental
"Basically, as a result of NAFTA, we're
still working in our traditional manner," says Kamp. "We're forging
allies across the border, writing letters. We're stuck with local
efforts." Those efforts can work; last year, plans for a coal-fired
power plant in Chihuahua, Mexico, were abandoned after studies
showed it would degrade air quality in Big Bend National
The Tohono O'odham tribe is also taking
matters into its own hands. Because NAFTA is expected to broaden
major highways across the border, the reservation will likely see
an increase in hazardous waste shipments into new Mexican waste
facilities. Weaknesses in NAFTA have forced the tribe to come up
with its own policies.
"We're currently drafting
regulations for the transport of hazardous waste through the
reservation," says O'odham official Floyd
The good news about NAFTA is that it's
encouraging local trans-border communication, says Helen Ingram,
director of the University of Arizona's Udall Center. If NAFTA had
failed to pass, it might have created a "bitter pill" for such
"NAFTA is an opportunity to
reinforce and strengthen grass-roots ties and linkages," she says.
"Now is our chance to reinvent the border."
more information, contact the Border Ecology Project, P.O. Drawer
CP, Bisbee, AZ 85603 (602/432-7456).