November 1997, Volume 4, number 9
by Dr. Edgar Wayburn
Sierra Club's international campaigns shine the spotlight on trade treaties that undermine pollution standards and brutal governments that persecute environmental activists.
Chair, International Committee
When John Muir founded the Sierra Club more than a century ago, he couldn't have imagined that the organization, which focused on parks, forests and wilderness for most of its first 75 years, would today be championing the rights of Nigeria's Ogoni people, working with communities on the U.S.-Mexico border to clean up pollution, or helping defend a retired Russian submarine captain from charges of treason.
But the planet is smaller and more interdependent than when Muir roamed the Sierra with just a crust of bread (and no cell phone) in his pocket. The pressures unleashed by the accelerating economic globalization of the past several decades threaten the values underlying all of the Club's work; they encourage unsustainable development and consumption and undermine the ability of citizens to protect their environment.
We can no longer afford to be concerned only with what happens in our backyards. Environmental degradation halfway around the world can impact our communities, just as burning coal in a local power plant not only pollutes the air but contributes to global warming, which can affect the climate worldwide. As The Planet goes to press, brushfires set by commercial loggers continue to rage across Indonesia, poisoning the skies in Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines.
As the human footprint on the planet gets bigger and deeper, natural resources everywhere -- from forests and wetlands to clean air and safe drinking water -- are endangered.
While environmental problems reach every corner of the planet, their impacts and possible solutions may be close to home. Look in your local lumber yard, where the Club is fighting to preserve " eco-labeling" tandards that give consumers information about how the wood was harvested.
Look in your neighborhood grocery store, where you can likely find a plethora of imported produce unimaginable a decade ago. But as a result of free-trade agreements, many of those products are subject to weakened food-safety protections -- one reason the Club is fighting to deny President Clinton fast-track authority to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement, which could further erode those protections.
Thirty years ago, the Sierra Club Board of Directors voted not to charter chapters in other countries (except Canada), but it did establish an international program. Since then, the Club has worked to, among other things, protect rainforests in the tropics, stop mining in Antarctica, and reform the policies of the World Bank and other international lending institutions to better reflect environmental concerns.
Today, the major focus of the international program is on two major campaigns: the human rights and the environment campaign, which seeks to defend the right of citizens everywhere to organize and speak out for environmental protection; and the responsible trade campaign, which seeks to guarantee that environmental concerns are not abandoned in the rush toward so-called free trade.
The Club is also working on international population stabilization, which The Planet will address in December, and global warming, which we covered in the July/August issue.
What ties the trade and human rights campaigns together is the fact that environmental protection depends on the rights of citizens to organize and influence public policy.
The Sierra Club has long held that citizen participation in government decision-making is the key to protecting our natural heritage. Our wilderness areas and national parks would not have been established if it had not been for an active and involved public. If the right of citizens to take part in the decision-making process is not allowed, environmental standards will suffer.
In Nigeria and other countries where outspoken organizers are imprisoned and executed, clearly the opportunity for citizens to influence environmental policy is severely restricted. (See " Club Champions Rights of Persecuted Activists," age 5.) In a less brutal but much broader way, the power that trade agreements give to unelected bodies like the World Trade Organization undermines the right of citizens to set their own environmental and public-health standards. (See How the World Trade Organization Struck a Blow Against Family Banana Farms)
The Sierra Club has opposed free-trade agreements like NAFTA because those treaties give new rights to transnational corporations to invest globally without assigning any comparative responsibility. And as a result of NAFTA, hard-won gains such as the Clean Air Act of 1990, passed by elected representatives in the United States under pressure from citizen environmentalists, have been successfully challenged and weakened because they were ruled to be trade barriers.
Free-trade proponents say the United States will be left behind in the world economy if we don't keep making trade deals. But with the world's largest economy, the United States has both the opportunity and responsibility to lead the way -- toward responsible trade.
Daunting as the forces promoting unrestricted economic globalization may be, we have to rely on the same forces that helped protect Yosemite and Yellowstone a century ago -- citizen activists organizing in their communities and beyond.
But North American environmentalists alone cannot save the planet's endangered ecosystems. Each country's citizens must organize to pressure their own governments, businesses and international institutions. To this end, the Club's international program works to assist environmentalists in other countries to actively defend their environment.
To counter the pressures wrought by a global economy, the Club needs to, in effect, work toward a globalization of conservation. But we have to start by organizing in our own backyards.
We need your help to fight these tough battles. Join your chapter or group international committee. Find out how to help fight NAFTA fast track. If there isn't a committee, start one. Help us build a powerful constituency within the Sierra Club for tough and effective international campaigns.
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