North american free trade and the environment: border environmental groups and the NAFTA

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Geoffrey Land


El Tratado de Libre Comercio en Norteamérica ha generado un nivel de interés y preocupación sin precedente sobre los posibles efectos que tendrán el comercio y la inversión en Norteamérica sobre el medio ambiente y la salud pública. Este artículo evalúa el papel de las organizaciones no gubernamentales ambientalistas a lo largo de la frontera México-Estados Unidos en el contexto del debate sobre el TLC, concluyendo que, independientemente del proceso de ratificación del TLC, los grupos ambientalistas fronterizos continuarán jugando un rol importante en el planteamiento de proyectos de desarrollo en la región así como planteando reformas en el régimen ambiental transfronterizo.ABSTRACTThe North American Free Trade Agreement has generated an unprecedented degree of interest and concern over the potential impact of unrestricted trade and investment on North America's environmental and public health conditions. This paper evaluates the role of nongovernmental environmental organizations along the U .S. /Mexico border within the context of the NAFTA debate, concluding that regardless of NAFTA's ratification, border environmental groups will continue to play an important role in the development of on-site projects as well as proposals for transboundary environmental reform.

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Land, G. (2017). North american free trade and the environment: border environmental groups and the NAFTA. Frontera Norte, 5(10), 99–115.


While recognizing the Important links between human rights, labor, and agricultural groups and environmentalists and the complexity of the problems presented by the NAFTA, this article focuses on the role and concerns of non-governmental organizations along the U.S./Mexico border whose orientation is primarily environmental.

See Stephen P. Mumme, "Environmentalists, NAFTA and North American Environmental Management," Journal of Environment and Development, 2,1, Winter 1993, for a broader discussion of environmental responses to NAFTA.

So-called "fast track" legislation requires that the U.S. Congress either approve or disapprove the NAFTA package. Still unclear is the possibility of additional alterations in the final agreement, through implementing legislation or other means.

Founded in 1970 and formalized as an Asociación Civil in 1974, Bioconservación, A.C. is one of Mexico's oldest non-governmental environmental organizations. Bioconservación began as a biological resource conservation group, integrated family planning into its agenda during the 1970s, and with the industrialization of the border has increasingly worked to address negative impacts of uncontrolled economic growth.

Based in Hermosillo, Sonora, and formalized as an A.C. in 1993, La Red is an environmental and health network of activists, academics and professionals from Arizona, Sonora, California and Baja California Norte. Affiliated groups and institutions include El Colegio de Sonora, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Enlace Ecológico A.C., Comité Cívico de Divulgación Ecológica A.C., Border Ecology Project, Arizona Toxics Information, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental A.C. and the University of Arizona.

Interview with Salvador Contreras, Bioconservación, September 6, 1993.

Figuring prominently among these are: Arizona Toxics Information, Bioconservación A.C., Comité Cívico de Divulgación Ecológica A.C., the Border Ecology Project, Enlace Ecológico A.C., Environmental Health Coalition, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental A.C., La Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente A.C., and the Texas Center for Policy Studies.

Michael Gregory and Dick Kamp, "Protecting Health and Environment in the Proposed NAFTA: Brief Notes," September 10, 1992.

Keith Schneider, "Environmentalists Fight Each Other Over Trade Accord," New York Times, September 16, 1993.

Mary Kelly, Dick Kamp and Michael Gregory, Letter to Jay Hair, September 17, 1993.

Interview with Dick Kamp, Border Ecology Project, September 19, 1993.

See "Mexico-U.S. Free Trade Negotiations and the Environment: Exploring the Issues," Texas Center for Policy Studies and Border Ecology Project Discussion Paper, by Mary Kelly; Dick Kamp, Michael Gregory and Jan Rich, January 1991 (and later published in Columbia Journal of World Business, Summer 1991).

For a more detailed retrospective of public participation and the NAFTA, see Michael Gregory, "Environment, Sustainable Development, Public Participation, and the NAFTA: A Retrospective," Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, vol. 7, Summer 1992, pp. 99-174.

Interview with Laura Durazo, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, September 7, 1993. Other Tijuana-based environmental groups, such as Foro Ecologista, AIRE SANO and Movimiento Ecologista de Baja California (MEBAC), have been active in local and regional environmental issues, but none has taken a stance directly on the NAFTA.

Ironically, many Mexican NGOs have found it easier to gain access to the U.S. policy-making process than to Mexico's. Mexican border environmentalists have been active in U.S. state and federal briefings, and testified at U.S. Congressional hearings on the NAFTA's potential impact in Mexico.

Interview with Salvador Contreras, Bioconservación, A.C., September 7, 1993.

Interview with Laura Durazo, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, A.C., September 7, 1993. Evidently, some PIAF funds helped provide trees and initiate a Cañón del Padre study in the early stages of the plan, but there is no evidence of PIAF funding going to Tijuana since Spring 1992, when SEDUE merged with SEDESOL.

Letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner from EPA Public Advisory Committee, July 22, 1993.

Besides the North American Free Trade Agreement and its parallel environmental side agreements, other plans include the EPA/SEDUE Integrated Border Environmental Plan/Plan Integral Ambiental Fronterizo and the 1991 Bush "Action Plan."

For a more detailed analysis of border proposals, see Stephen Mumme, "New Directions in U.S./Mexico Transboundary Environmental Management: A Critique of Current Proposals," Natural Resources Journal, vol. 32, Summer 1992. Universities and research centers along the border also played an important role in the development of policy recommendations for institutional reform of transboundary environmental regimes, including the University of Arizona, the Univertisy of Texas, Austin, and the University of Texas, El Paso.

La Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente, Letter to NAFTA negotiators. July 1992.

Mary Kelly, "Facing Reality: The Need for Fundamental Change in Protecting the Environment Along the U.S. /Mexico Border," 1991.

For a more detailed description of the proposed FEPA, see Alan Neff, "Not in Their Backyards, Either: A Proposal for a Foreign Environmental Practices Act," Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 17:477, 1990.

La Red Fronteriza de Salud y Ambiente, Letter to Canadian, U.S. and Mexico Trade Negotiators on the NAFTA, July 2, 1993.

For a more detailed discussion of NAFTA-related funding needs, see "Funding Environmental Needs Associated with the North American Free Trade Agreement," prepared by Sierra Club with NGBEO input, July 7, 1993.

See "Proposal for a North American Development Bank," prepared by the Hon. Esteban Torres, July, 1993.

Michael Gregory and Dick Kamp, Letter to Bill Pistor regarding recommendations on NAFTA draft text on the environment, August 31, 1992.

Interview with Jose Bravo, Environmental Health Coalition, September 16,1993.

Draft North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation between the government of Canada, the government of the United Mexican States and the government of the United States of America, September 1993, Article 45:2:b, p. 31. The text excludes from the Commission's jurisdiction activities whose "primary purpose" is "managing the commercial harvest or exploitation, or subsistence or aboriginal harvesting, or natural resources."

Gregory and Kamp, supra note 28.

Gregory and Kamp. supra note 28.