David Waskow is an international policy analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., where he works on trade policy, corporate accountability, and the environment.

Monday, 17 Nov 2003

MIAMI, Fla.

It may as well be called the World Trade Summit Beach Tour: next stop, Miami.

The last stop was in Cancun, Mexico, in September, where World Trade Organization negotiations collapsed over deep disagreements between rich countries and developing countries (the rich countries wanted developing countries to accept rules granting broad rights to multinational corporations, but meanwhile didn’t want to seriously address fundamental inequities in global agricultural trade, including the massive subsidies that agribusiness receives).

I was there in the heat and humidity of Cancun, together with hundreds of colleagues from NGOs from around the world, to argue against the current trade system’s unfair — and frequently anti-environmental — trade policies. The stark inequities of Cancun itself in many ways told the story of the global economy. While the trade negotiators holed up in fancy hotels, just miles away the poverty and ecological degradation that flowed from the city’s tourism-dependent economy were evident for all who cared to look.

Now I’m in Miami. This time, it’s for a major summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the FTAA (or ALCA in Spanish), a trade pact that would cover the entire Western Hemisphere, from Argentina to Canada.

If the Bush administration has its way, the FTAA would be a far-reaching agreement, covering not only tariffs in manufactured goods, but also agriculture, multinational investment, services, government procurement, patents, and antitrust policy. Imagine, if you will, a congressional bill that touched on nearly every aspect of public policy, but — as is true in the case of the FTAA — was being negotiated and voted on completely behind closed doors.

Some countries, particularly Brazil and Argentina, are arguing for a scaled-back FTAA, and this summit will be focused on this major dispute between North and South. The developing countries don’t want some of the most intrusive elements of the proposed agreement to be kept in — especially rules on investment, services, and intellectual property that would provide broad rights to multinational companies.

The stakes for the environment are high. The investment rules in the FTAA would mirror those in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has been used by multinational corporations to sue governments for putting in place environmental and public-interest laws — suits that are argued in front of secretive international tribunals. Most recently, a Canadian gold-mining company said it would bring a $50 million case against the U.S. after California enacted a requirement that mining companies backfill the massive open pits they create. Mexico and Canada have already lost similar suits under these special NAFTA rules.

As I said the last time I wrote for Grist — more than two years ago, during another major meeting of the FTAA, in Quebec City — my message this week about trade agreements will be “First, do no harm.” Let’s not do trade agreements with imbalanced rules that will cut at the very heart of environmental protection.

I’m sitting now in a small storefront office being used by the Citizens Trade Campaign — a coalition of environmental, labor, farmer, consumer, and religious groups — to organize its Miami activities. The negotiations are taking place only blocks away, but once again, trade negotiators are almost entirely cut from what’s happening around them.

With a press pass, I was able to enter the small hotel zone where negotiations are happening (mere citizens and environmental advocates can’t get anywhere near the negotiators). But it was then virtually impossible to leave — no public transport, no taxis.

It was probably appropriate that I had to use foot power to reach the office where I’m sitting, but how many negotiators will do the same? The gulf between inside and outside is a great distance indeed.