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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Not Now, NAFTA | Doe Run Takes a Hike | Life After Death | Smoke Signals

Not Now, NAFTA

Chile's economy may be ready for free trade, but its environment is not

One of the few things President Clinton and the Republican leadership in Congress agree on is their desire to bring Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They've got allies in Chile, where business interests are eager to hitch South America's strongest economy to the free-trade bandwagon. But in September Congress killed "fast track" legislation, which would have given the president the power to negotiate trade pacts with minor congressional input. At issue was the bill's silence on environmental and labor concerns. Environmentalists above and below the equator celebrated.

During the early 1990s, after military dictator General Augusto Pinochet reluctantly ceded power to an elected government, Chile's entry into NAFTA seemed a done deal. Chilean government and business leaders viewed the agreement as a kind of world seal of approval of the country's new political structure and free-enterprise economy. But U.S. environmental groups-led by the Sierra Club-have consistently blocked fast track, effectively stalling NAFTA. In the meantime, Chile has signed a trade agreement with Mexico and is negotiating with other Latin American countries and the European Union. In 1997 it signed an accord with Canada that is virtually a carbon copy of NAFTA, right down to the toothless promise that each country will enforce its own environmental laws.

That's why Chilean environmentalists dread NAFTA. Because Chile's environmental laws are often only statements of good intentions, international corporations could run roughshod over their country. In 1994, for example, Chile's Congress passed its "Environmental Framework Law." But until a Chilean Supreme Court decision in March 1997, compliance with its key provisions-including a requirement to conduct environmental impact studies-was voluntary. A national parks system theoretically protects almost 20 percent of Chile, but regulations have yet to be implemented.

"There's an almost pathetic lack of enforcement," says Miguel Stutzin, who heads the Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna. "We have over a thousand laws and regulations covering the environment. But there's no political will to make them work."

Chile's forests would be the first to feel NAFTA's effects. Only one-third of this string-bean-shaped country is suitable for forestry, and Chilean firms have already planted the most accessible land with pine and eucalyptus. What remains are remoter areas blanketed with rare natives like the graceful alerce, the Southern Hemisphere's version of the California redwood.

Officially, clearcutting of these native forests is illegal. But last July, Santiago's daily El Mercurio published a front-page photograph showing land once covered by coigüe, lenga, and other species unique to Chile that had been cut and burned. "The law always leaves a loophole," says Stutzin.

Even government environmental authorities admit the system exists not to reject projects but to "improve" them. It's no wonder U.S. companies such as Boise Cascade and Trillium Corporation are planning major logging projects here.

Chile's attitude toward pesticides is similarly lax, and their use could greatly increase under NAFTA. Pesticide imports more than doubled when Chile's fruit- and wine-export industry boomed in the 1980s. In 1995, labor ministry studies revealed that most workers-some of them children, and many illiterate-don't follow standard safety procedures when handling pesticides. Aerial spraying is largely uncontrolled. Three of the "dirty dozen" pesticides banned throughout the world-paraquat, pentachlorophenol, and parathion -are used routinely in Chile. Entry into NAFTA is expected to make pesticides cheaper, worsening a bad situation.

Three out of four Chileans believe that their laws don't adequately protect the environment. When asked to rate protecting the environment against the need for economic growth, 59 percent choose the former, while growth at all costs is preferred by only 17 percent.

Over the past five years, Stutzin has watched NAFTA live up to warnings of increased pollution, ineffectual enforcement, and attacks on existing environmental law, and he worries that NAFTA's "seal of approval" comes at too high a price. "We just don't have the measures in place to protect our environment," he says. "We're not ready for NAFTA." —Lake Sagaris


Doe Run Takes a Hike:
Ozark river lovers burst a polluter's lead balloon

On a warm summer evening in 1997, thugs set upon a Sierra Club activist in a parking area along the Eleven Point River in southeastern Missouri. They beat her, bound her with duct tape, and, as a calling card, stuffed a copy of the Ozark Chapter's anti-mining brochure in her mouth. Then they left her in her van, where she was rescued the next morning.

But the attack backfired. It served only to focus new attention on a potentially disastrous proposal to prospect for lead in the watershed of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a national park unit that draws 1.5 million visitors a year. Now, under pressure from top federal lawyers, the Doe Run Mining Company has called off its two-and-a-half-year campaign to drill in the ecologically fragile region.

"The Forest Service saw this as a routine administrative matter. We turned it around," says Ken Midkiff, staff director of the Ozark Chapter. "This should send a strong signal to extractive industries: some places are just too important to let profit trump protection."

Indeed, the victory marks a stunning reversal for Doe Run, among the world's largest lead producers and one of Missouri's most notorious polluters. Until recently, the company seemed a lead-pipe cinch to win the needed permits to prospect-and subsequently launch a full-scale mining operation-in a 7,900-acre section of Mark Twain National Forest. Opponents warned that even exploratory drilling would endanger the nation's first scenic riverway, a designation that predates the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The classic karst topography of the park unit, just two miles to the south, is characterized by sinkholes, caverns, and underground drainage, adding to the likelihood that toxic lead tailings would find their way into the region's rivers and springs.

"We drew a red line around this area years ago that said you're not gonna touch this," says Midkiff. In response to Forest Service inertia, the Missouri Sierra Club released a 40-page list of environmental violations by Doe Run over the past decade, drawing press coverage throughout the Midwest. Activists generated thousands of letters to the agency, including one from the state attorney general. Finally Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt got involved, prompting complaints from House Resources chair Don Young (R-Alaska) on Doe Run's behalf.

But the activists' "red line" held. In meetings with Doe Run, Interior officials reserved the right to reject full-scale mining-even if commercial quantities of lead were discovered-for the sake of the entire watershed.

And this may be a trend, says Babbitt, noting the administration's decision to buy out a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park. "Mining should not be allowed to threaten very special places like Yellowstone and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways."—B.J. Bergman


Life After Death

The material is gingerly placed in a hermetically sealed container, encased in a concrete-and-steel structure that weighs more than a ton, and then buried underground.

Are they burying toxic waste? No, dear reader, they are burying you.

The excess packaging required by most U.S. cemeteries guarantees that your journey from "dust to dust" will take many hundreds of years. Instead of a quick transformation into sweet earth, you face centuries of slow putrefaction.

Cremation isn't much better. Burning a body produces carcinogenic dioxins, trace metals, hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids, sulfur dioxide, and global-warming-inducing carbon dioxide. Only your bone chips return to earth, assuming they're scattered. The rest of you becomes air pollution.

Your final resting place need not be unnatural. In Great Britain's "green burial" movement, people are buried in simple shrouds or biodegradable coffins made of flax, cork, cardboard, or recycled newspapers. Graves are marked with trees rather than headstones, and the cemeteries double as wildlife habitat.

How can you expire without becoming toxic waste? In the United States, a company called Memorial Ecosystems already has a nature- reserve cemetery in South Carolina, and is planning many more. (For information, call (864) 647-7798; www.memorialecosystems.com.) It is legal in most states to be buried in the way you see fit on your own rural land. For the cost of a cemetery plot, you can buy an acre or two that you can preserve-and nourish-as natural habitat forever. -Martin Kaufman

Smoke Signals

Sierra Club members in Utah are puzzling over a pamphlet called "How Parents Can Help Children Live Marijuana Free" by Gerald Smith, director of the criminology program at the University of Utah. The pamphlet includes a "Letter to Parents" by Utah's zealously anti-environmental Senator Orrin Hatch (R), and has a picture of Hatch on the front. Page 20 lists the "Social Signs of Regular Users," which include "excessive preoccupation with social causes, race relations, environmental issues, etc."

It seems they forgot another classic symptom: paranoia. —Paul Rauber


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