Lower wages, more pollution, deformed babies. This is progress?
By Carl Pope
Arough concrete-block wall now encloses the old battery-recycling plant,
but that hasn't stopped the frosty patina of poisonous lead salts that
stretches past it and down a mud path. "Careful," our guide says
to House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.). "The acid from
the old batteries is carrying the lead through the wall and down the hill."
Below us at the bottom of the mesa, a residential colonia nestles
next to a small tributary of the Tijuana River.
That wall is about the only evidence I can find in Tijuana of the border
cleanup Congress promised when it adopted the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. While the number of assembly plants known as
maquiladoras has almost doubled, neither clean water nor sewers
or hazardous-waste cleanup has followed. With all the new factories, border
pollution has, in fact, increased.
That pollution is coming, for the most part, not from antiquated enterprises
like the battery-recycling plant (the likes of which can be found in poor
countries all over the world), but from the real emblem of NAFTA sprawling
a few hundred yards across the mesa: Ciudad Industrial, row after row of
technologically sophisticated, highly automated Japanese and Korean electronics
factories that could have been airlifted from industrial zones in Osaka,
Seoul, or Tennessee. Ten percent of North America's television sets are
now produced in Tijuana, in plants blazoned with blue and red banners boasting
"ISO 9002," meaning that they meet the stringent quality-control
standards of the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO
also gives awards for compliance with international environmental standards,
but those banners are strikingly absent.
This is the promise of free trade and NAFTA: First World factories in
which Mexican workers use advanced technology to produce television sets,
refrigerators, and VCRs as proficiently as Japanese, Korean, or U.S. workers.
Here is a powerful engine of economic production, pouring forth the wealth
that should lift Mexico economically and environmentally into the First
World. Ciudad Industrial on its mesa is the shining city on the hill promised
by backers of NAFTA.
Up close, however, that luster is only the poisonous sheen of pollution.
Halfway down the dirt road that leads to the colonia is a square opening
in the hill, the sewer outfall through which, largely at night, the sparkling
factories of Ciudad Industrial discharge their hazardous wastes. Gingerly,
our party-which also includes Democratic Whip David Bonior (Mich.) and
assorted academic experts, journalists, and Mexican trade unionists-picks
its way toward the river, a glistening chemical soup. A few dogs lap at
its edge; their hair is falling out in mangy patterns, and they walk splay-footed.
One of the professors familiar with this colonia explains that although
drinking water is trucked in, residents wash their clothes in the river
and use its water for bathing. Children here suffer a high incidence of
serious birth defects, including undeveloped brain stems.
Later, in talks with local community leaders, it becomes clear that
the Mexican government has erected a set of stunningly perverse institutional
barriers to economic and environmental progress. Faced with a labor force
swollen by decades of population growth, the creation of jobs-any jobs-has
become the overriding priority. Workers in the Tijuana maquiladoras are
paid about 50 cents an hour, less than before NAFTA passed. The low wages
are favored by the government and enforced by the local employer councils,
despite food costs nearly equal to those across the border in San Diego.
Workers cannot afford bottled water, and Mexican law prohibits the local
government from taxing these state-of-the-art factories to pay for sewers.
Of course, the highly profitable factories could easily bear the tax
burden needed to properly dispose of their wastes. But in its eagerness
to attract jobs of any kind, the Mexican government guarantees factories
only impuestos symbólicos, or symbolic taxes. Cleanup loans
promised by NAFTA through the North American Development Bank sit untapped
because, without decently paid workers or reasonably taxed factories, they
could never be repaid.
Proponents of NAFTA argue that these arrangements preceded free trade
and are solely the fault of the Mexican political system. But NAFTA sanctions
and legitimizes these rules by guaranteeing Mexican goods access to U.S.
markets, and encourages the spread of such practices throughout the rest
of Mexico. Economic growth under such circumstances-however vibrant, however
sustained-can never translate into economic and environmental health.
The health in question is not only that of Mexican workers. Those lead
salts running downhill from the old battery factory, and the solvents released
at night by the electronics factories, do not all end up in the stomachs
of mangy dogs. Most flow downstream until they wash over surfers and wading
children at Imperial Beach, California.
The Clinton administration is now asking for fast-track authority to
negotiate similar trade agreements with other nations, starting with Chile.
Republicans in Congress oppose tying future agreements to guarantees of
labor freedom and environmental protection, even to toothless declarations
such as those with Mexico. For its part, the administration is reluctant
to admit that NAFTA's environmental and labor provisions have failed, as
the Sierra Club and others predicted.
We will hear much in the coming months about how the engine of free
trade will propel the world toward better living and a cleaner environment.
But let's wait until it propels Mexico there first before proceeding further.