Victor Lichtinger
Secretary of Semarnat, Mexico

Hemispheric Trade and Sustainability Symposium, April 18, 2001, Musée de la Civilisation, Quebec, Canada Sponsored by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, The World Conservation Union and the United Nations Environmental Programme http://www.iisd.org/trade/qc2001

(Prepared by Madeline Koch)

Note: The following is a partial summary of remarks given at the Hemispheric Trade and Sustainability Symposium. It is neither an official document nor a complete transcript, nor has it been checked against the speaker's text.

I want to talk about the difficult relationship between the environment and trade. A long time ago I and many friends engaged in discussions on this topic and realized that even the language that we use can be different when we talk about tariffs and trade and rules. When we talk about the environment we use other terminology. We see here today that the relationship is getting closer, but there is still a large distance between trade and the environment.

I hypothesize that it will be difficult to advance the link as long as it is disassociated from economic decisions and policy. Trade has not taken the environment into the account, nor is the contrary true. The environment continues to be marginalized in the politics in many of our countries, not just in developing countries but also developed ones. Environmental policies are always a secondary issue and not considered as important as decisions concerning economic issues. Yet any such decision must also take into account the environment. Trade has a huge impact on the environment. It is important to realize this and study it.

How can we make sure that the environment and economic aspects are complementary? How can we make sure the environment is taken into account at the basic level? If we acknowledge the relationship, then the link becomes equally important. Some basic subjects come up as important - for example, environmental cooperation among the countries, which is very important because there are still many differences between the types of policies and standards among different countries, making it difficult for trade to advance. Also important are standards related to investment, including NAFTA Chapter 11 and similar issues. Another is anything to do with multilateral or bilateral agreements or sanctions and certain rules. These agreements must be efficient and must consider that the negative actions that have been felt by poor countries relating to trade.

Environmental policy is a high priority in Mexico for the first time. The environmental minister participates at the Cabinet level in government. That's a big step forward. In the U.S. or Canada, I don't think the economic cabinet includes the minister of environment. Apart from that in the new cabinet we have managed to make sure over the six years to come we will include environmental issues in our mandate. Any sector's plans will always have to have something about sustainable development. Social development will have to take place alongside sustainable development. This will be clearly delineated and there will be a lot of transparency in how the government plans to carry out its plans.

For the first time we will join these different factors relating to sustainability and we will be able to achieve sustainable development in Mexico. We never thought we would be able to do this, even when we began this administration. It's not just a plan for the environment but involves all the different ministries. In this sense we are going to be horizontal or transversal, and we'll be able to integrate things and forge a true environmental policy moulded to our economic needs. The environment and economics. We want to prevent any negative impact on the environment, so we don't want to have to restore it.

In most Latin America countries, most large environmental problems are directly due to past bad economic policies. In the 1970s, in Mexico we had a national commission to deforest the country; now we see this as appalling and ridiculous. But it happened. Subsidies for water have been perverse, and now we have significant desertification in the northern part of the country. Small towns have had to relocate because there is no water and no possibility of irrigation. Millions in rural areas have no running water and have to pay up to twice more what we would pay in the city in order to get water.

We have been subsidizing the rich instead of those who really need it. The poor do not have water, in a situation of absolute social inequity, which much be rectified. We have seen these kinds of policies and are putting them aside now, so we now the ministry of the environment as part of the cabinet to work toward a better planning.

Also, the Mexican experience includes the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which links environment and trade for the first time. I was first executive director of the commission, which was actually a positive experience. We were looking at environmental cooperation. The largest contribution made by the commission was that all the countries understand the same situation and each other's situations. This has had a large impact in Mexico where we have learned how things are done in Canada and the U.S. and have been able to avoid mistakes. It has forced us into a more in-depth examination of ourselves. At this junction, and I am not talking about the FTAA, I would like to tell you clearly that after four months in government now, we think we should have a discussion on the theme of the environment that must be a part of any stipulation.

Our position is perhaps not clear about whether it should be dealt with at the same time as trade or separately. I believe the latter because I think cooperation with the environment is important before we can come to a narrow link. Nonetheless, it is going to be important to promote all national and subnational agreements. We're going to give lots of room to regional integration and give it an important role in how we see ourselves in relation to Central America. We have a great responsibility to Central America to work toward sustainable development. We see this in this light because Central America has a system of sustainable development that they are implementing, which is very interesting and which we support.

That today we discuss the environment and link it with trade will diminish the risk of unilateral commercial actions. If we do not talk about them we will not be able to have forums. If we start producing clear rules about what's important to us we'll continue to have potential for unilateral decisions for our own good. It's our experience with the commission that the very fact that we discus things and share each others' experiences are a fundamental necessities to stop anything harmful. From the moment we started dealing with NAFTA, there have been no unilateral actions taken.

It's important to continue to build the trust that should exist between us and our peoples so that trust can build in some concrete experiences. There might be other models - many, in fact - but everything is on the table. I'm interested in everyone's opinion and I'm sorry I wasn't able to be here for the past two days because I am really interested in non-governmental organizations.

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