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Common Dreams

NAFTA's Deadly Legacy: Corporate Profits Over People and Planet

Ahead of Transatlantic and Transpacific trade deals, report authors warn: 'Remember NAFTA'

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

The legacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), twenty years after implementation, is one of environmental degradation and corporate dominance, according to a report published Tuesday.

Governments on the verge of signing similar agreements—both the Transpacific (TTP) and Transatlantic (TTIP) trade deals— ought to take a "page out of the history books and stop negotiating trade pacts that gut protections for our air, water, land, workers and communities," said Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program, ahead of the report's release.

The report, NAFTA: 20 Years of Costs to Communities and the Environment (pdf), summarizes more than 100 nonprofit, government and scholarly studies of the trade pact. It was written by the Sierra Club, Sierra Club Canada, the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC), the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Council of Canadians.

According to the study, the environmental legacy of the trade pact is both widespread and varied. From fueling the proliferation of Genetically Modified (GM) agriculture in Mexico to encouraging the development of Alberta tar sands, the results have been a disaster for people and the environment.

Summarizing the report, Huffington Post's Mike McCauliff writes:

Perhaps hardest hit is Mexico, according to the report, where expanded trade in agricultural products came at the expense of smaller farmers, who couldn't compete with a surge in pesticide-heavy factory farms. Small farmers resorted to cutting down forests to farm more land, and still failed. A boom in mining came at the expense of local landowners, with subsequent industrial pollution.


In Canada, while the improved access to markets meant that exports to the U.S. soared by more than 200 percent from 1994 to 2008, wages stagnated. In the petroleum industry, Canada was contracted to continue shipping a certain amount of oil to the U.S., encouraging development of the high-cost tar sands in Alberta at the expense of alternative energy.

“These are not unfortunate side-effects," say the authors of the report, "but rather the inevitable results of a model of trade that favors corporate profits over the interests of communities and the environment.”

According to the findings, perhaps the "most harmful components" of the agreement are the "vaguely worded" investment provisions that guarantee the right to claim damages when the value of an investment has been reduced, empowering multinational corporations to challenge any government environmental initiative in private trade tribunals.

The report warns that pending agreements—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)—stand to "replicate many of the worst elements of NAFTA." 

According to the report:

[I]n the TPP the U.S. government is proposing to extend intellectual property rights to corporate patents on plant and animal life, including genetically modified organisms. These rights would be expressly recognized as a covered investment in the investment chapter, giving patent owners the right to sue countries that did not recognize (or want to import) their GM products.

It continues:

U.S. chemicals and agricultural lobbies hope that the TTIP will weaken toxic chemicals regulation in Europe, and possibly require EU countries to recognize hormones and antibiotics used in North American meat production as safe for human consumption.

The groups behind the new report urge government officials now considering the new deals to take NAFTA's deplorable legacy into account as trade talks continue, but so far remain skeptical that the most important lessons have been learned.

“If only NAFTA countries could learn from the fiasco, but they are busy signing more NAFTA-like deals around the world, further taking away our ability to protect the environment and merely crossing their fingers that our ecosystems can sustain all this new growth," said Alejandro Villamar, trade policy analyst with Red Mexicana de Acción Frente al Libre Comercio, on the anniversary of the agreement.


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