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Opponents Say CAFTA Will Harm Environment

June 4, 2004

AS the Central America Free-TradeAgreement (CAFTA) heads toward thelegislative bodies of the involved countries,environmentalists studying its potentialimpact insist it poses a threat to theregion’s natural resources.Since CAFTA negotiations with theUnited States began more than a year ago,trade officials have stressed not only theeconomic benefits they say it will bring,but also that the pact will improve enforcementof Central America’s existing environmentallaws.But opponents aren’t convinced.“Environmental legislation should berespected with or without a treaty,” saidManuel López, of the Costa RicanFederation for the Conservation of theEnvironment (FECON). “We believe thatthrough the free-trade agreement we won’tbe able to obtain the required balancebetween society and the environment.“We have yet to fully analyze all therepercussions of the agreement,” he admitted.“But what we have studied is enoughto conclude it should be rejected. At nopoint does it improve environmental conditions.It’s destined to put natural resourcesin the position to be exploited by transnationalfirms.”CAFTA, signed by the foreign tradeministers of the five Central American countriesand the U.S. Trade Representative May28 (see separate article), includes a chapterdedicated to the environmental obligationsof each country. In essence, Chapter 17obligates each country to enforce its ownlaws and makes it possible for countries tobe sanctioned when they consistently allowthe environment to be damaged in a waythat affects trade.“The environmental chapter includedin the free-trade agreement tends tostrengthen the institutional capacity ofCosta Rica to apply its own legislation,”Anabel González, head Costa RicanCAFTA negotiator, told The Tico Times.José María Villalta, an advisor toCitizen Action Party’s legislative factionwho has studied CAFTA’s potential environmentalimpacts, says that is not enough.“The main concern is that despite it havingbeen said the treaty would improve andstrengthen environmental protection,throughout the treaty’s structure we see theissue of environmental protection subordinatedto commercial interests,” he explained.THE biggest threat CAFTA poses,environmentalists say, is that it would limitthe country’s ability to reform andstrengthen existing environmental lawsand create new ones when necessary.In its first article, Chapter 17 recognizes“the right of each Party to establishits own levels of domestic environmentalprotection and environmental developmentpolicies and priorities, and to adopt andmodify accordingly its environmental lawsand policies.”However, opponents of CAFTA say it’simportant to dig below the surface.“The environmental impact of thetreaty is not limited to the chapter on theenvironment,” Villalta said. “It’s importantto look at all the chapters. Each has environmentalimplications.”ACCORDING to Villalta, CAFTAwill “permanently freeze” the country’senvironmental legislation as it is whenapproved. Any new laws, regulations orreforms to existing legisaltion would needto be compatible with CAFTA, he said.Under Costa Rican law, internationaltreaties ratified by the LegislativeAssembly have a higher rank than laws.The rank of treaties is second only to thecountry’s Constitution. If CAFTA is ratified,it will obtain this rank.Measures found to limit the trade andinvestment privileges agreed to underCAFTA could be overturned, he said.“Any measure established in a law, regulationor municipal disposition, even ifit’s based on the protection of the environmentand human health, which affects thepossibility of a company to generate profits,could cause the country to be sued,”explained FECON’s López.THIS is particularly worrisome consideringthe inadequacy of many of thecountry’s most important environmentallaws being studied by legislators right now,Villalta said, pointing to the proposedwater and fishing laws.During the past six years, Costa Ricahas been without a national law to governits fishing and aquaculture industries.Legal experts have warned this legal vacuumhas left open the door to uncheckedfishing in the country’s waters (TT, Sept.12, 2003).According to Villalta, the governmentcharges vessels “symbolic” fees for licensesto fish in the country’s waters. Theindustry is loosely regulated and there arelimited efforts to stop over-fishing in thecountry’s waters.Under CAFTA, Villalta says, the countrywould not be able to modify fishingregulations in any way that would restricttrade, making it impossible for the govermentto enact tougher controls, he claimed.CAFTA would also make it impossiblefor Costa Rica to reform a controversiallaw allowing private generation of electricityin the country’s rivers (TT, Feb. 20),environmentalists claim.Mauricio Álvarez, FECON’S energyexpert, says this will lead to over-exploitationof the country’s rivers.According to FECON, approximately130 private hydroelectric projects have beenproposed in Costa Rica – 28 of them on theSan Carlos River in the Northern Zone.The law “doesn’t consider the effectsdams can have on a river, not just on fish andaquatic life but on all humans who dependon it,” Álvarez explained. “Energy productionis a way of privatizing water. It stops itfrom being used for agriculture and humanconsumption. Politicians have created a lawthat allows uncontrolled private generationof electricity. This law would be consolidated[if CAFTA goes into effect].”Making the current hydrocarbons lawpermanent would also make it impossiblefor the country to create a permanent banon oil exploration, Álvarez added.CAFTA would also limit the country’sability to limit sales of genetically modifiedorganisms (GMOs), say opponents.According to Eva Carazo of theBiodiversity Network, a ban on GMOs, oreven labeling requirements, could be considereda technical barrier to trade and disputedin CAFTA’s arbitration mechanism,(TT, April 2).WHILE trade ambassador Gonzálezadmitted she did not know the specifics ofthe environmental concerns expressed byVillalta and FECON, she said she considersthem unfounded.“There’s nothing there that prohibits usfrom determining the content of our ownlegislation,” she said. “In reality, in thatsense, the country can proceed as it sees fit.”

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