Published on Friday, April 28, 2000 by the InterPress Service
Environmental Groups Condemn Secret Trade Meetings
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - A coalition of more than 90 environmental groups from Canada, Mexico and the United States are demanding their governments immediately suspend secret meetings they say aim to change the environmental side agreements of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

According to documents released by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the three governments have been meeting for the past 10 months with the goal of revising procedures under the trade agreement that allow citizens to submit a petition if they feel environmental laws are not being enforced because of trade pressures.

Such a procedure is ''one of the only mechanisms ever designed to create international rights for individuals and non-profit groups to counterbalance the rights and advantages granted to private business interests within the context of free trade agreements,'' said groups.

The coalition includes World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental, Friends of the Earth, and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

During the heated debate over the passage of NAFTA, these groups pressed hard for the measure to help ensure that increased trade in the region would not lead to the weakening of the enforcement of environmental regulations in the face of economic pressures and trade.

''The credibility and legitimacy of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC) as a public institution are threatened by these secret discussions,'' said a statement released by the coalition. The Montreal-based Commission is the inter-governmental body set up under NAFTA to hear citizen petitions.

Groups are demanding to know why the proposed revisions have been negotiated in secret. In the past all revisions were held in broad consultation with organisations in the three nations.

In the shadow of the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation, groups warn that if trade officials continue to meet in secret, it will ''deeply weaken'' the public's trust in the capacity of countries to balance trade and the environment.

It ''raises serious questions regarding the level of commitment the NAFTA governments have made to the participation of civil society in trade agreements,'' said Jake Caldwell, trade and environment co-ordinator at the National Wildlife Federation.

Government officials denied that the meetings were secret, saying that there was a public announcement that minor procedural matters would be discussed.

But environmentalists said that information received from the EPA that illustrated the US position on the proposed revisions reveals that the closed-door negotiations actually sought to change core elements of the procedure for submitting petitions.

One revision proposed that citizens group introducing a petition would have to prove that specific harm was done to the environment.

Placing the burden of prove on the group submitting the petition was hotly debated when the side agreement was first drafted, said Steve Porter, an attorney with the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). Porter said the proposal would cause local communities to pay for expensive laboratory studies or legal fees to make their case.

''This will limit public participation because it will discourage NGOs from going ahead with this mechanism,'' added Gustavo Alanis with the Centro Mexico de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA).

Another concern is that the negotiators discussed an exception to the submission process that allows for ''prosecutorial judgement'' or discretion on behalf of the government on how it allocates its enforcement resources.

Porter feared this could ''effectively gut'' the process because governments could easily dismiss charges that they were not adequately enforcing its environmental laws.

''Our concern is that this loophole will become so big that it swallows the whole process,'' said Porter.

Environmentalists said that several citizen petitions are pending without resolution for an unacceptably long time.

''It is time to end these unacceptable delays,'' said David Schorr, director of WWF's sustainable trade campaign.

One of the most recent of the 23 submitted petitions was filed last year by environmental groups in all three nations and accused the US government of deliberately flouting international and domestic laws that prohibit the killing of migratory birds.

The submitted petition alleged that the United States refuses to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as it relates to loggers, logging companies and logging contractors who destroy bird habitat.

In other petitions, Mexican environmental groups have accused their government of violating the General Law on Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection by improperly treating hazardous waste from an abandoned lead smelter in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico.

Canadian organisations submitted a petition that charges that their government is not enforcing its fisheries laws and is failing to protect fish and their habitats from the environmental impacts of the mining industry.

They also accuse the Canadian government of failing to ensure the protection of fish in British Columbia's rivers from damage caused by hydro-electric dams.

Copyright 2000 InterPress Service