Is Democratic and Sustainable Trade Possible?

A look at the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement under the Trump Administration

For over two decades activists have called for a renegotiation of NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement. It seemed like a long shot that the U.S., Canada, and Mexico would ever upend this agreement, but many advocates of a just economy refused to give up the quest. Now, finally, after years of agitation, on August 16th renegotiations of NAFTA will start. Twenty-three years after the detrimental trade agreement went into effect, we are finally getting our chance to reconsider its provisions.

The good news ends there.

On July 17th, the United States Trade Office released its objectives for the NAFTA renegotiation. The formal objectives, though vague in many respects, are clear enough to dampen hopes of a fair trade agreement.

Millions of people whose livelihoods depend or depended on agriculture have lost jobs, farms, or income in the decades following NAFTA. The impact has been felt most acutely in Mexico, where subsidized corn from the North has decimated a way of life, but small-scale farmers and farmworkers in all three countries have felt the impacts. Thousands of non-agricultural jobs also disappeared and wages decreased for many remaining jobs.

NAFTA has forced small-scale farmers to leave their land and become migrant workers struggling to make a livelihood. These gr
NAFTA has forced small-scale farmers to leave their land and become migrant workers struggling to make a livelihood. These grape pickers migrate from field to field in northern Mexico and California.

These are some of the key reasons so many sustainable agriculture advocates, unions, environmental organizations, and citizens have called for a renegotiation of this unfair “free trade” agreement.

After over two decades, the impacts we have seen from NAFTA are the inevitable effect of trade agreements that are negotiated in a closed process in which corporate lobbyists have sway over government officials.

In addition, in 1994, when NAFTA first went into effect, our government, as was true of governments around the world, was only beginning to understand the impact of climate change and the policies needed to mitigate it. In 2017, we understand that small-scale farmers are already impacted by climate change. Unpredictable and changing weather has made an already precarious undertaking more difficult. Migrant farmworkers have had to change migration patterns to keep up with changing crop cycles. Farm and factory workers have also seen an increased risk of heat stress as temperatures soar at their workplaces.

The July 17th objectives on the NAFTA renegotiation do not address any of the concerns about a corporate-led negotiation process. There is an environmental section of the objectives, but not a single mention of climate change, the most pressing human and environmental challenge of our time.

The objectives do contain a few nice buzzwords about farms and jobs, but no meaningful action steps.

If there is any doubt as to the inadequacy of these objectives, there is one key provision to watch: Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). This is the provision that allows corporations to sue governments that enact environmental or public health laws that reduce expected corporate profits. This is no dormant provision or idle threat. Last year the Canadian energy company TransCanada sued the United States, asking for $15 billion when the Obama administration put a stop to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It cannot be overemphasized: people and planet will not and cannot come first until ISDS is eliminated from NAFTA and other trade agreements. Local and national governments need to be able to enact laws that mitigate and reverse climate change, create healthy and well-paying jobs, and promote agroecology and sustainable agriculture without fear of lawsuits by corporations out for the bottom line at any cost.

Eliminating ISDS does not guarantee a fair trade agreement, but including it does guarantee a disastrous agreement. The renegotiation also needs to be an open and transparent process that puts the contributions and needs of communities that have been marginalized by past trade agreements, including farmworkers, small-scale farmers, and low-wage workers and their collective representatives and advocates, at the forefront. These communities were largely harmed or left out of any benefits of past trade agreements because they did not have a seat at the negotiating table. Corporate lobbyists did have a seat at the table and it is no accident that this then led to provisions, like ISDS, that protect corporate profits while millions of people from communities without negotiating power lost jobs, farms, and income.

The outcome of an inclusive and transparent process will prioritize agroecology—characterized by environmental sustainability and dignified livelihoods—just as the outcome of a closed and exclusive process was an agreement that prioritized industrial agriculture and wage-suppression in the name of corporate profits serving the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

The fair trade movement has evolved over the last half century as an alternative to conventional trade. Fair trade is based on principles like democracy, equity, fair payments, good working conditions, and environmental sustainability. Fair trade brands and fair trade producer coops have shown that it is possible to develop supply chains that benefit producers, companies, and consumers without harming communities and ecosystems along the way. It is time to take these principles and make them the norm.

Keith Neu and his wife Monica farm 1100 acres of organic land near the Hudson Bay. Members of a cooperative, they sell their
Keith Neu and his wife Monica farm 1100 acres of organic land near the Hudson Bay. Members of a cooperative, they sell their organic grains on fair terms demonstrating that trade can support farmers, their families and communities when the terms are right.

Once the negotiation begins on August 16th, the process may accelerate quickly as negotiators and corporate lobbyists try to push through tweaks to make NAFTA work better for the 1%. Opening NAFTA for renegotiation is a big step that many have been asking for over the course of its troubled history. Now we must turn this opening back into good news and an opportunity to get it right. This starts with eliminating ISDS and ensuring an open and inclusive negotiation process. Democratic and sustainable trade is possible, but we need to work hard to make it happen.

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