GRANADA, Nicaragua – Soundingmore like politicians than environmentalists,Central America’s ministers of theenvironment last week sang in one voicetheir enthusiastic praises for the soon vigilantCentral American Free-TradeAgreement with the United States(CAFTA), which they claim will help protectthe region’s natural resources.At a conference of Central Americanenvironment ministers held here last week,Nicaraguan Environment Minister ArturoHarding said he thinks CAFTA – specificallyChapter 17, or the “environmentalchapter” of the accord – will create clearexpectations for environmental protection,as well as new mechanisms to sanctionthose who don’t comply with environmentallaws. He said the trade pact would forceNicaragua to stop using poverty as anexcuse for pollution, if, that is, Nicaraguaever ratifies the accord.Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the DominicanRepublic, which signed on to theagreement in August 2004, have not yetratified the trade pact. The United Statesratified CAFTA last week, joiningGuatemala, El Salvador and Honduras (seeseparate story in The Tico Times).“CAFTA, from an environmental pointof view, and all the ministers of CentralAmerica agree on this, will be beneficial tothe environment of Central Americabecause it will put things in order,”Harding told The Nica Times.PATRICIA Panting, Honduras’Minister of the Environment, sharesHarding’s gusto for the trade document.But when pressed on why she thinksCAFTA will be good for the environment,she became snippy about the details.“It’s the only (free trade) treaty in theworld to include an environmental chapter,”she repeated. (In fact, as theWashington Office on Latin America(WOLA) points out, the environmentalchapter of CAFTA is modeled closely onthe free-trade agreement between Chileand the United States.)The environmental chapter requireseach signatory country to respect its existingenvironmental laws, although it doesn’toblige any of them to actually have anyenvironmental laws.CRITICS of CAFTA’s environmentalprovisions have argued that the trade pactactually removes some protection measuresincluded in other free-trade agreements,such as the North American Free-TradeAgreement (NAFTA), which itself is hardlyconsidered an environmental benchmark.The administration of U.S. PresidentGeorge W. Bush showed its level of commitmentto the environmentalists’ concernsby allocating $20 million in 2005 toimprove labor and environmental conditionsin the five Central AmericanCAFTA nations.The small print of that effort, however,shows that most of that money goes towardjudicial security matters, while only $1million is earmarked for the environment –specifically, to fight trade in endangeredspecies and to start a public registry totrack the release of chemical pollutants.NON-governmental environmentalorganizations in Central America and theUnited States are arguing that CAFTA notonly fails to protect the environment, butwill hasten the exploitation of the region’snatural resources.In May, a group of several dozenenvironmental groups from throughoutCentral America sent a letter to the U.S.Congress stating why they are against thepact, and arguing that the environmentalchapter is a joke.“The chapter on environment falls farshort of proposing an efficient mechanismfor environmental protection,” the groupwrote in their letter, which then goes on todissect each section of the environmentalchapter.The environmentalists, who offered along list of complaints about the environmentallaw, also directly contradicted oneof the environmental ministers’ main argumentsin favor of the accord by saying:“There are no sanctions for failing to complywith the commitments.”THE Environmental InvestigationAgency (EIA), a Washington, D.C. andLondon-based non-governmental organization,has also come out against CAFTA,arguing that the trade accord will lead to anincrease in illegal logging in CentralAmerica (NT, June 10).The Sierra Club, meanwhile, has qualifiedCAFTA’s environmental provisions as“weak, unenforceable and full of loopholes.”While the Central American environmentministers echo U.S. Trade RepresentativeRob Portman’s excited qualificationof CAFTA’s environmental provisionsbeing “cutting edge,” most environmentalistsare arguing the real provisionswere cut out.