An Environmental Justice Critique of NAFTA…

Synopsis of article by Professor Carmen G. Gonzalez, Seattle University School of Law: An Environmental Justice Critique of Comparative Advantage: Indigenous Peoples, Trade Policy, and the Mexican Neoliberal Economic Reforms, 32 U. Penn. J of Int’l L. 723 (2011): 

Read entire article on SSRN

Carmen G. Gonzalez’ article critiques the free market reforms adopted by Mexico in the wake of the debt crisis of the 1980s and in connection with the  North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  She begins her analysis by explaining the theoretical underpinning of these reforms — the theory of comparative advantage, which posits that countries should specialize in products they produce relatively more efficiently and should import goods that they produce relatively less efficiently.  Her article then examines the practical and theoretical limitations of this theory  from an environmental justice perspective using the Mexican corn sector under NAFTA as a case study.  The article examines the impact on Mexican farmers and on the environment of Mexico’s neoliberal economc reforms, which eliminated tariffs on imported corn and re-directed subsidies away from small farmers and toward large, export-oriented agricultural enterprises.  These policies resulted in a surge of cheap, imported corn from the United States that drove millions of  Mexican farmers off the land  and promoted the abandonment of traditional, environmentally-friendly agricultural practices in favor of environmentally destructive industrial agriculture.  Mexican farmers who abandoned agricultural production found work in oppressive maquiladoras. When the number of migrants vastly exceeded available jobs, many migrated to the United States.  Far from promoting prosperity in Mexico, NAFTA devastated rural livelihoods, increased unemployment, and accelerated migration to the United States.  Mexico’s indigenous communities were disproportionately affected by these reforms because migration to urban areas resulted in separation from ancestral lands and resources necessary for both economic and cultural survival.  Gonzalez urges policy-makers to develop trade agreements that give primacy to the protection of human rights, reduce North/South inequality, promote long-term prosperity of poor countries, improve environmental quality, and reduce incentives to migrate.  Indeed, this is precisely the approach to regional integration pioneered by the European Union, which maintains open borders by investing billions of euros in poorer regions in order to create jobs, fund local development projects,  provide aid to farmers, and protect the environment.  Rather than criminalizing immigrants and militarizing the U.S.-Mexican border, the United States would be well-advised to recognize the relationship between trade policy and migration and to develop an alternative approach to regional integration that promotes rather than frustrates economic, social and environmental justice.


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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