David Waskow monitors the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations for Friends of the Earth U.S., where he is the trade and investment policy coordinator.

Monday, 16 Apr 2001

WASHINGTON, D.C.

It’s Quebec City week, the week that some believe will be the next Seattle. Seattle, of course, refers to the monumental eruption over global economic issues that took place during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings there. In other words, this week — when heads of state from around the Western Hemisphere meet to launch the final push in negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas — may be the next critical moment in the movement against unrestrained free trade and “corporate globalization.” It’s no wonder so much attention is focused on Quebec — the FTAA will essentially create a NAFTA plus WTO for the entire hemisphere.

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However, it’s unlikely that Quebec will be quite as successful as Seattle from a protester’s point of view. For one thing, 34 presidents and prime ministers will be gathering Friday for this Summit of the Americas, and security will be that much tighter. Given the presence of thousands of well-armed Canadian Mounties, protesters will have little chance of shutting down the meetings the way they did in Seattle. (It lasted only a few hours, but the shutdown changed the debate around globalization forever.)

I’m heading into the midst of all this tumult (and the preparations for the tumult) tomorrow. But shutting down the meetings is not my concern at all. Rather, it’s how to get out the message about the critical dangers the FTAA poses to the environment. It’s always hard to get a clear message out when the front pages are covered with pictures of confrontations between police and protesters. But it’s also hard to get the media to understand and write about our key concerns.

Often, it’s said that what environmentalists want, above all, is to force First World environmental standards on developing countries that don’t want them. But for Friends of the Earth, this isn’t the case. The U.S. chapter of FoE is part of an international network of FoE groups in 68 countries, many of them in Latin America. Our colleagues and fellow activists in the developing countries of the Western Hemisphere share our concerns.

So what do we environmentalists want with trade agreements? As I often say, invoking the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Trade agreements over the past decade have increasingly come to challenge and undermine environmental laws and regulations. Turtles were the chief symbol in Seattle because of a WTO ruling that struck down a U.S. law banning imports of shrimp caught in ways that harmed endangered sea turtles. In that case, WTO rules trumped environmental protection.

More recently, a wave of NAFTA cases have been brought by corporations (yes, corporations can themselves bring cases under NAFTA) challenging environmental laws and regulations that have impaired their profits or investments. So far, the most significant one for the U.S. is a suit against the U.S. government brought by a Canadian company seeking $970 million in compensation for lost profits because of a California ban on a toxic and carcinogenic gasoline additive. If the FTAA includes rules like those in NAFTA, which allows such challenges to environmental laws, imagine the consequences for the environment throughout the hemisphere.

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Let me repeat: First, do no harm. Environmentalists’ foremost concern is to prevent future agreements like the FTAA from permitting direct attacks on our best efforts to protect the natural world. Of course, there’s much more that we want — at FoE, we’re very concerned that the FTAA will encourage trade and investment that harm our forests, oceans, and air, and we think trade agreements should ensure that such damage won’t happen. I’ll touch on those issues in my diary later this week, as I head up to Quebec.

Tuesday, 17 Apr 2001

MONTREAL, Quebec

I finished yesterday with a flurry of last-minute tasks before heading to Quebec for the Summit of the Americas. With the help of Environmental Media Services and their blast-fax, I sent out a FoE press release announcing our call for a halt to negotiations of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (We’re going to release a complete statement in Quebec later this week with our FoE partner organizations from around the hemisphere.) I’ll follow up with calls to key reporters who cover the trade beat and sometimes have the inclination to listen to our point of view.

All day yesterday, I ran back and forth to the copy shop to finish printing our policy brief and critique of the FTAA, “Trading Away Our Environment,” worrying too much about tiny errors that no one else will notice. Meanwhile, I finished writing and copying a piece titled “A Disservice to the Earth,” a very brief analysis of the services agreement in the FTAA. Services, it turns out, is trade terminology for almost any activity that a multinational corporation can do in another country — environmentally harmful activities in many cases — from oil exploration and transport to water projects, from hotel construction to waste incineration.

Finally, I gathered up all these materials and my contact info for Quebec (especially the press contacts) and headed out the door last night. Now, Tuesday morning, I’m sitting on the floor of an airport, waiting for my flight north. Flying off to try to prevent the environmental damage caused by globalization always feels odd to me. In many ways, it’s necessary. But all the fuel used to get us advocates to these meetings is a key piece of the problem. (I won’t even mention our use of paper, although we try to use it judiciously.) If trade expands dramatically in the Western Hemisphere with the FTAA in place, one of the most significant environmental impacts will be the increased air and marine pollution from transport. Oceangoing ships, which carry most traded goods, already cause about one-sixth of global sulfur and nitrogen air pollution from petroleum sources.

But I can rationalize the occasional trip like this one: A few advocates throwing our bodies in the way, politically speaking, is critical to make any progress at all in reversing long-term trends now headed in the wrong direction.

I’ll finish my day at an environmental summit sponsored by the Hemispheric Social Alliance, a loose network of progressive organizations around the Americas. Between sessions and schmoozing with other advocates, I’ll make a round of press calls. And hope that the good that comes from this advocacy is enough to make a difference.

Wednesday, 18 Apr 2001

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec

I made it to Quebec yesterday afternoon, and I even managed to enter the country (at the Montreal airport) with my belongings intact. Some of my colleagues were not so blessed. A number of them had their baggage and packages opened and searched, with a particular focus on any printed material. Others who sent materials by mail have now come to the conclusion that they will never see them again; Canadian customs officials seem to be interpreting their mail laws very precisely. A number of family farm advocates coming north from Vermont had their cars searched and each item of advocacy material copied. It occurs to me that using this search-and-disrupt approach at the border as a way to foster the Summit of the Americas key agenda — free trade — is quite ironic.

This morning, I distributed our materials at the Peoples’ Summit environment forum and attended a program on the impact of trade on water rights. Before that, though, I left my room early and went to see some of the fence surrounding the perimeter of the area where the heads o
f state will be staying and meeting. Near where I’m staying, part of the fence is actually the several centuries-old wall that was used to protect the city of Quebec from intruders. The chain-link fence is superfluous along the sections where this wall stands. What’s odd, though, is that the wall protects Quebec’s old city, while the presidents and prime ministers are staying in modern hotels just outside the old city’s limits. Rather than protecting them, the wall is actually serving to keep the heads of state out from the most beautiful part of this quite small city. (The old city’s a quirky European-style maze of hilly streets with numerous cafes and shops.)

The government officials are going to be missing something else — the great gathering of people who have come to protest their governments’ pursuit of the FTAA and propose sustainable alternatives that protect the environment and human rights. As soon as I arrived last night, I went straight to the center of the Peoples’ Summit, organized by a loose coalition of organizations called the Hemispheric Social Alliance. The crowd in the tent where the evening’s program was held was quite diverse — far more so than for any similar event in Seattle. Last night exemplified the Peoples’ Summit approach — we were all treated to an evening of song from all over the hemisphere.

It’s a real shame that the heads of government will miss this gathering — not only for our sakes, but for theirs as well. But they’ve chosen to wall themselves in and us out. It’s emblematic of one of the central problems with the way trade deals have been constructed in recent years, an undemocratic model that is sure to be replicated here in Quebec this week.

Thursday, 19 Apr 2001

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec

Things became a bit more exciting yesterday at about 3:00 p.m., when an official draft text of the key investment chapter of the FTAA was leaked and posted on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy website. Until then, it had been kept behind closed doors by the countries negotiating the FTAA. A number of us with some background in these issues sat down with the text to do a quick analysis, confirming our worst fears; the investment proposal was as bad as NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11 on investment — even worse.

Some background: NAFTA gives multinational investors broad rights to sue governments and challenge environmental laws and regulations. Witness the case I mentioned Monday, in which a Canadian company is suing the U.S. government for $970 million for compensation for lost profits because the state of California has placed a ban on a carcinogenic gasoline additive, MTBE.

At 5:00 p.m., I was the U.S. representative in a hastily called press conference with Canadian and Latin American groups to announce the leak of the FTAA text and the serious dangers it poses. Most of the press was Canadian, so I spoke last, after the Canadian speakers had finished demanding that their government follow through on its previous position opposing any corporate challenge provisions in the FTAA.

I echoed their criticisms of the text in a brief set of comments, then waited while the CBC and other Canadian press asked questions. I followed up with a series of press calls to U.S. reporters. We’ll see whether any of this makes it into a story. It sounded unlikely, but it’s critical just to have the contact with reporters who might call in a day or two on some other item.

The press work is an endless process, and it’s been made all the more difficult in Quebec by the fact that the main press center (and the key reporters) will be in the inaccessible, fenced-off part of the city where the heads of state are going to meet. Meanwhile, we’ll ply our wares in the Peoples’ Summit press center, where I did manage to have a very good conversation with an Orlando Sun-Sentinel reporter; she had picked up our four-page critique of the FTAA and was very interested in the forest destruction issues. A small paper, but often I think those are the critical readers to reach — outside the Beltway and Manhattan.

This morning, I hooked up in the press center with representatives of Friends of the Earth groups from Uruguay and Ecuador to plan the release of our statement on the FTAA (ALCA in Spanish). That’s another critical audience to reach — the media and public in Latin America who might be suspicious of North American environmental motives but will be much more receptive when some of their own countrypeople deliver the message. The FTAA investment draft gives us an excellent jumping-off point for our statement. Perhaps we’ll even have a new piece of leaked text to announce.

Friday, 20 Apr 2001

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec

At around midnight last night, I found myself standing in a suburban hotel parking lot in 25-degree weather, talking on a BBC radio microphone to an anchor in London via satellite. Before I began speaking into the ether, the technicians played a clip of Canadian Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew saying that trade leads to development, which leads to environmental protection and democracy — an absolutely inexorable chain of logic. I was ready to tackle that story head on by talking about the toxic wasteland at the U.S.-Mexico border, the impact of trading natural resources like trees, and the ways in which trade rules undermine environmental laws.

For some reason, though, the anchor decided to ask mostly about the relationship of trade to democracy (a subject that has climbed higher on the agenda for the Summit of the Americas talks this weekend), but not about the environmental impacts of free trade. I tried to steer the questions my way — and give some insight on Latin American politics when I could. Still, though, it all added up to quite a strange experience.

But perhaps not quite so strange as watching the McDonalds in the old city of Quebec completely disappear, bit by bit. The final touch, after the lettering and arch had been taken down, was the plywood covering the windows, which had been painted with brightly colored flowers and trees (a rather unconvincing echo of the real thing). One could not recognize what had been there just 24 hours earlier.

Yesterday afternoon, I saw the final pieces of the fence protecting the Summit area being put in place. The street protesters for whom these measures are intended have indeed been arriving in greater and greater numbers. But all those I talked to are intent on nonviolent protest; one Canadian student even told me that window-smashing was “passe.”

As I watched a group of young activists climbing one of the steep streets of the old city of Quebec, beating drums as they went, I had a flashback to Seattle. I was reminded of my journey near the end of the WTO talks to a center where many of the protesters were staying. Excellent free food was in abundance, the center provided a bicycle library — a set of bikes that were free for the taking (and returning) — and the soft beating of drums kept the atmosphere calm. After the strife in the streets and the political conflict within the negotiations, it was a wonderful oasis from the craziness outside.

The chief lesson I learned then, and that I remembered again while watching the drummers in Quebec, was that there is a purpose to our work on trade that goes far beyond the immediate politics. I still have much work to do here, of course. I’ve just finished working with the FoE office in Washington to develop a press release for tomorrow calling President Bush an “Earth Day hypocrite” for his support of the anti-environmental FTAA. (He’s expected to make some nods in the direction of the environment tomorrow as part of his pitch for the trade deal.) We’re going to have email it to reporters who are sitting six blocks away, but are nonetheless unreachable in person, so I need
to make a round of calls to get their addresses.

But, after all that, I’ll try to take that lesson from Seattle home with me.