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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.

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.

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