(en) Trade & the Environment

Gidget Digit (pj@tao.ca)
Sat, 31 May 1997 01:26:25 GMT


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Whose Consensus Reality? Liberal Road-kill at the Intersection of Trade and the Environment by pj lilley

[edit of article appearing in the May-June issue of the New Socialist -- http://www.web.net/~newsoc]

"Oh Saro-Wiwa, each day so many lives conscience traded on the market while poor are left to die... Oh Zapatista, they tried to tell us that the future holds no promises and history's reached the end Oh Zapatista, when will this struggle end?"

"rational" -king cobb steelie

In the interests of deconstructing the hype and re-constituting society from the ground up, let's take on the intersection of trade and the environment. This summer, the circus to distract will be the Earth Summit, while the bread-stealing will be attempted by the Multilateral Agreement on Investments.

The UN Commission on Sustainable Exploitation For three weeks during April, the trade and environment policy writers of the various governments of the world got together to negotiate what the world leaders will be reading at Earth Summit +5, on June 23-27th. They gathered under the auspices of the United Nations in New York City, at the Commission on Sustainable Development, to review the "progress" on the Rio principles, the agreements made in 1992 at the first Earth Summit. In the five years since, nation-states have regressed in their overall commitment to environmental protection, and the only speedy progress has been to trade liberalisation, with its systematic undermining of labour and environment regulations.

At the negotiations, it was obvious that most of the room was operating under a similar free market ideology of liberalisation first, trickle-down improvements later. There was a semantic dance around the definition of sustainable development, equating economic growth with development and development with sustainability. This pushed flawed old economic development models, newly decorated with phrases about 'taking into account sustainability issues.' The US and other EU countries were eager to include "national" clauses within text, in order to avoid the hassle of binding international agreements that might address the vastly unequal global playing field.

The final emasciated text had no teeth, no integration of the polluter-pays principle nor systematic overhauls of how GDP (economic growth itself ) is measured. As an essentially liberal organization, those NGOs and governments gathered under the United Nations were good at the rhetoric of corporate responsibility, but poor at suggesting methods of enforcing such changes. Both Northern and Southern NGO's called for a radical shift in production and consumption patterns, but at the same time, most accepted the government pronouncement that more open markets would create that shift. Without an organized international social movement to demand such ecological protection, the Dialogue Sessions with Major Groups (youth, women, indigenous peoples, farmers) were primarily scoldings for the few governments representatives who bothered to appear.

Granted, the integrity of the CSD itself was severely compromised in 1994 with the creation of the World Trade Organisation. It works together with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are the primary instruments of capital in extracting multilateral debt repayments through structural adjustment programs causing widespread social and ecological damage. The corporate-driven WTO is where the real decisions on international trade are made, and realizing this, many NGO's and Southern countries clamoured for its reform to "democratic governance, transparency, and full public accountability." Again, an unlikely proposition given the momentum behind GATT, NAFTA and the impending APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation) deals. Yet, as at the first Earth Summit, the mantra "Urgent Situation; Far Too Little Being Done; Bold Actions Needed; Measurable Steps Required" will be the oft-repeated cover for a lack of clear targets and deadlines on environmental protection.

The Multilateral Agreement on Investments Bursting onto this colossally screwed up valuing system, comes the MAI. Nastier than NAFTA and more fat than GATT, this is a treaty to enshrine the dominance of private capital flows. It is the declaration of corporate rule, in the form of a charter of rights and freedoms which will protect and expand transnational investment and speculative markets. The MAI is being negotiated within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), more elite than even the WTO, with only 29 of the richest countries, and those 'home' to 95.4% of the largest transnational corporations. In fact, the MAI is so sweeping, it expands investment to cover every kind of asset owned or directly controlled by an investor (stocks, bonds, intellectual property rights, concessions, etc.) and seeks to establish incorporation rights as equal or greater than nation-states by definition. It restricts any ability of a government to regulate foreign direct investment and exacts compensation for any government regulations which interfere with the current, or even potential, free flow of capital.

Despite its quick and quiet negotiation within the OECD, these dictatorial trade codes will be the heaviest leverage yet against developing countries and the now globalized working class. The one-sided process also includes lock-down clauses of 20 years before any signatory country could legally opt out of the agreement. Citizen's rights? The president of the US Council for International Business (one of the main lobby coalitions behind the MAI) wrote in a letter to senior U.S. officials on March 21, 1997, "The MAI is an agreement by governments to protect international investors and their investments and to liberalize investment regimes. We will oppose any and all measures to create or even imply binding obligations for governments or business related to environment or labor."

This is the ground at the intersection of trade and the environment. But the deal is not yet signed. Though it was initially to be pushed through by May '97, it is now in negotiation until next spring. There are still some shreds of government autonomy, and the political heat around trade agreements is rising. The flip side of capitalist globalization is a growing international consciousness, a potential grounding for international resistance. With the cynicism at media monopoly, comes an increase in media literacy as young people are reclaiming expression and creating media networks not based on profit but rather on renewed public interest research. The emphasis now needs to be put on sustaining societies not economic growth. This means on-going work to localize economies down to scale, in order to meet the basic food, clothing and shelter needs of those who fall off the corporate grid, and build the alternatives. It means contrasting the Liberal election rhetoric of corporate 'jobs, jobs, jobs', with truly sustainable livelihoods based on participatory community economics and decision-making. If the stock exchange can crash tens of millions of dollars in less than a minute, than perhaps ordinary, sane citizens should begin questioning the spectacle that is "free market reality."

On the day that NAFTA came into effect, indigenous rebels in the Chiapas hills said, "Ya Basta!" Now, from July 25th-August 2nd they are holding the Second Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism. The Zapatistas are calling to us to help in the formation of a truly international, organized network of resistance. It is based on co-operation and solidarity rather than market competition. It is based on the collective self-organization of those women, youth and indigenous peoples who are so conspicuously marginalized within both liberalized trade agreements and even the traditional liberal environment movement. It is not based on helplessness but hope.

For more information on global environment agreements and the anti-thetical MAI, visit http://www.islandnet.com/plethora/

For more on the 2nd Intercontinental Meeting For Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism, http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3849/gatherdx.html

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