MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations


Cleaning Up the Border:
New Promises Under NAFTA --
Will sustainability be a priority?

by Lynda Taylor,
Border Environment Project

With the creation of two new binational institutions under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) comes hope that the environmental pollution problems shared by Mexico and the United States will be addressed and solved. The Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and its companion financial institution, the North American Development Bank (NADBank), were established in late 1993 by the NAFTA Side Agreement on the Environment. Their purpose is to help border communities develop proposals and provide financing for environmental infrastructure projects. Although BECC has not finished its draft proposal certification criteria for public comment (anticipated to become final in late summer or early fall), it has already received dozens of proposals. There have been more than 100 possible projects identified, with many more sure to come before BECC for consideration.

As binational institutions with both the U.S. and Mexico's authority and funding, BECC and NADBank offer border states and communities and residents, together with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), an innovative vehicle and an historic opportunity. BECC and NADBank could become a workable model of cooperation between countries with very disparate economies as they grapple with the effects of virtually unrestrained free trade -- industrialization, natural resources depletion, pollution, and health and social impacts. If BECC does its job well, not only will border communities get the help they need, but they will gain permanent skills in long-term collaboration and problem solving to tackle the host of other pressing needs -- such as housing, schooling, jobs, and medical care -- in which BECC has no direct role. But it will be important to help shape these new institutions early to ensure they remain responsive to their founding goals. And while it is too early to predict the success of these institutions, it is clear that without them, the conditions along the border will only worsen.

There is limited money for border projects, promised from a variety of existing sources as well as this new funding source -- and the amount is shrinking dramatically as economic issues in the United States and Mexico are causing budgets to be tightened. Uniform proposal guidelines and criteria addressing urgent health and environmental needs, project feasibility, financial soundness, local public participation and support for projects, and an initial limited focus for BECC and NADBank under the Agreement, will help guide and narrow the selection and certification process for new border projects.

An additional goal for BECC and NADBank, stated in the Agreement's preamble, is to "achieve sustainable development" in projects to be certified -- that is, development that is appropriate, effective, and enhances the capacity of a community, or society, to improve the quality of life for its residents. This goal, although somewhat intangible, can be used as an important yardstick above and beyond the basic selection criteria for evaluating which of the host of potential projects should receive funding priority. Determining priority for projects, beyond basic criteria, will be one of BECC's earliest, and perhaps most demanding, tasks. How BECC can promote the use of appropriate, alternative, low-cost technologies for infrastructure projects, especially in small rural communities, will be a further challenge.

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