In force for two full years, NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has contributed to an environmental and health calamity along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, says a Washington-based watchdog organization.
"NAFTA begins its third year sinking in a sea of broken promises relating to the environment, public health, jobs, and wages," said Joan Claybrook, president of the group, Public Citizen. "NAFTA has intensified severe problems of water and air pollution, hazardous wastes dumping and increased the incidence rates of certain diseases and birth defects in the border region."
NAFTA created the world's largest low-tariff trading zone. The three signatories are Canada, Mexico and the US. Its supporters said NAFTA would improve North American economies and enrich Mexico, which would buy US-made goods.
Opponents claimed Mexico's lower labor costs would attract US manufacturers, increasing the number of US firms operating in cheap-labor nations. Ross Perot, a 1992 independent presidential candidate, was widely quoted when he said NAFTA meant "a loud sucking sound" would be heard across the US as businesses and jobs went south of the border.
In its report, "NAFTA's Broken Promises: The Border Betrayed," Public Citizen said proponents promised a healthier and environmentally cleaner border. These positive elements would result from fewer assembly plants (maquiladoras) concentrating along the US-Mexico border, more wealth in Mexican border communities, and NAFTA-created institutions that would enhance environmental law enforcement and coordinate funding for cleanup projects.
Vice President Al Gore voiced those views in a 1993 televised debate with Perot. Perot said one Mexican attraction was lax environmental controls. Gore responded that NAFTA would give the US clout over Mexico with respect to environmental standards.
Pro-NAFTA lobbyists agreed. Calman Cohen of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, representing major US corporations, said: "For those who are trying to say that we will see more facilities such as those on the border. I say it is 180 degrees the other way. Those are the facilities that will close down."
Public Citizen's report says, however, that "maquiladora growth has increased" 20 percent in NAFTA's two years. Last fall, Mexico's six border states (Chihuahua, Baja California Norte, Sonora, Coahulla, Norte Leon, and Tamaulipas)-had 85 percent of the maquiladora workers. The report said Baja California cities (Ensenada, Tecate, Tijuana, and Mexicali) "had a company arriving or expanding at a rate of more than one a week." In addition, the report contends, the maquiladora industry is changing from assembly plants to full-scale manufacturing facilities.
The environmental repercussions of increased activity includes an "increase in the creation of hazardous waste," much of which the report says is "simply washed down the drain." Only 70 of 352 industries generating hazardous waste report proper disposal. Public Citizen quotes Oscar Canton Zetina, chair of the Mexican Ecology Commission, who said, "Each year, seven million tons of toxic waste are, without controls, illegally dumped in drains and marine waters. Only 1 percent are under surveillance in the country."
The impact on residents' health on both sides of the border is also serious, the report says. Prior to NAFTA's approval by the US Congress, according to the report, "unusually high levels" of birth defects along the US-Mexico border were being examined. Lloyd Bentsen, then Treasury Secretary, said he had seen babies born with birth defects and added, "The NAFTA package gives us the ability to assure that [those problems] will be addressed."
Public Citizen says "the incidence of neural tube birth defects has not improved since NAFTA took effect in 1994, and may actually be increasing." Neither the cause nor the reason for the abnormalities' location along the border is known. The rate of anencephaly (a rare birth defect in which full-term babies are born with incomplete or missing brains and/or skulls) has declined nationally in the U.S. but increased in Texas. Cameron County, Tex., in which Brownsville is located, is particularly affected. Brownsville's sister city is Matamoros, Mexico, and a new 1995 epidemiology report, correlating 12 years of Matamoros industrial activity and Brownsville anencephaly rates, finds that "the prevalence of anencephaly is strongly correlated to the level of activity at the nearby Matamoros maquila zone."
Another health issue is the low birth-weights of border-community babies. Public Citizen cites a study published in the Journal of Industrial Medicine in December 1993 that says women working in garment and electronics maquila plants in Tijuana, Mexico, had babies with lower birth weights than babies born to women working in service-related industries. This issue is highlighted because more than 350,000 women working in maquiladoras are of reproductive age.
Representative Ron Coleman, a Texas Democrat, argued that passage of NAFTA would help curb waterborne infectious diseases, "The incidence of hepatitis, shigellois, and amebiasis along the border is two to three times the national average. Fifteen percent of families in colonias [border slums] report at least one family member suffers from diarrhea every week. This legislation seeks nothing more than to protect poor children from becoming sick."
Public Citizen says that rather than diminish, the incidence of infectious diseases has "in some cases increased. For instance, two years after NAFTA the hepatitis rate in the border region remains two to five times the US national average. Waterborne disease has grown dramatically in some areas."
Proponents also promised NAFTA would clean border-area water. But in its two years, says Public Citizen, "There have been no appreciable changes in the public water or sewage treatment infrastructure. [And,] the border region's water shortage crisis is growing with the severe drought that has plagued Northern Mexico and Southern Texas for the past three years." Improvements in that infrastructure had been promised. The Clinton Administration said the NAFTA-related Border Environmental Cooperation Agreement would furnish new financing for projects to treat waste water and provide clean drinking water.
In reality, according to Public Citizen, "Several water and sewer projects under way before NAFTA have been halted as a result of the Mexican economic depression. The surge in funding for such projects promised by NAFTA supporters never materialized."
Among NAFTA's supporters was a major environmental organization, the National Wildlife Federation. Its president, Jay Hair, predicted "a near-term resolution of some incredibly difficult environmental degradation problems." And the Clinton Administration pledged "a better environment for the millions of Americans who live [on the border], as well as their Mexican neighbors."
The Border Environment Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank (NAD) were created by a US-Mexico agreement to coordinate and fund the border cleanup. In its first two years the bank financed no projects. The commission certified three projects. An estimated $20.7 billion would be necessary to combat border environmental problems, said the Sierra Club. The Clinton Administration said $8 billion would be provided. The money would come from the US and Mexican governments ($3.4 billion each); state and local government banks ($2 billion); multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank; and Mexican federal funds ($1.4 billion), as well as private investments and the NAD. However, none of this funding is guaranteed.
"U.S. government budget cuts and the Mexican economic depression," the report said, "have limited the amount of funding available for these institutions.