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.

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.

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.