Globalization in Mexico, Part 2: Environmental Effects

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The environmental effects of globalization and free trade deserve consideration in addition to social and economic factors. The connections between environmental degradation or improvement and increased international trade are complex and multi-faceted. Environmentalists and economists on both sides are often inclined toward dogmatism in their beliefs. Economists and globalization advocates argue that increasing national wealth drives the ability and desire to protect and preserve the natural environment. Environmentalists argue that the capitalistic pursuit of profits and development directly damages the environment.

Both sides are right in some ways. A comprehensive, analytical study titled “Environmental Impacts of Globalization and Free Trade”and published by the MIT Press in 2002 found that increasing GNP in wealthy, developed countries is linked to environmental degradation in poor, developing countries. Other studies compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that trade liberalization decreased local pollution, but increased global greenhouse gas emissions, which are more difficult to regulate.

All of these factors are at play in Mexico, where, in urban areas like Mexico City, pollution is a major public health concern. Increasing national wealth in Mexico, as well as in other developing countries, means that industry proliferates and populations grow. As populations and standards of living increase, demand for goods such as vehicles and meat also increases. All of these factors contribute to fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Sierra Club has published a comprehensive overview of the environmental effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico. According to the Sierra Club, NAFTA’s environmental provisions do not adequately manage, regulate, or mitigate the effects of industrial development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in northern Mexico, which has experienced the majority of the country’s foreign investment and industrial development.

The social and environmental effects of globalization converge at the Cananea copper mine, located in Sonora, Mexico less than 100 miles south of the US-Mexico border. As Mexico’s largest open pit copper mine and one of the largest in the world, the Cananea mine has a significant impact on the surrounding environment and communities. The mine, which is owned and operated by US-based Southern Copper Corporation, a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, is the area’s largest employer. The mine provides jobs to about 80 percent of the region’s population.

While the corporation has taken steps to reduce the mine’s environmental effects, copper mining remains one of the most environmentally impactful activities undertaken by humans. The environmental effects of copper mining include water degradation and depletion, habitat destruction, and air pollution. Since mining is a fundamentally geologic activity, its effects on soil are profound. Many copper mines extract ore that is composed of less than one percent copper. The remainder of the mined material then becomes waste.

Starting in 2007, serious conflicts arose between the mine’s workers and its owners. Miners went on strike citing dangerous working conditions and poor worker health. In 2010, Mexico’s federal court ruled in favor of Grupo Mexico, allowing them to terminate the contracts of striking workers and hire new laborers. But after contracts were terminated, former employees threatened to destroy the mine site. Eventually the Mexican police intervened, removing all strikers from the site. But the troubles did not end there: clashes erupted between previous union workers and current contract workers, resulting in the serious injury of at least two miners.

When I visited the region in 2011 and 2012, we passed through multiple security checkpoints operated by armed guards who held a list of those who were allowed to enter. Strikebreakers or others affiliated with the previously striking workers were prohibited from entering within several miles of the mine.

All in all, evidence shows that globalization in Mexico has probably benefitted the United States and other foreign investors more than it has the people of Mexico. Free trade does not fight poverty, protect the environment, or ensure fair and safe working conditions for all. Reducing the enormous costs of widespread pollution, social inequality, and climate change will require a different approach.

– Kat Henrichs

Source: Mining Technology,  Sierra Club
Photo: Wikipedia

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