REPRESENTATIVES to the Organizationof American States (OAS) fromCentral America, the Dominican Republicand the United States signed an agreementFeb. 18 creating an Environmental Commissiondesigned to complement the CentralAmerican Free-Trade Agreement with theUnited States (CAFTA).Supporters of the trade pact say thecommission will help strengthen conservationefforts and allay the fears of environmentalistsin the United States and otherCAFTA signatory nations.Environmental groups argue the tradepact weakens Central American countries’ability to enact new environmental legislationand defend local resources againstmultinational companies.THE new agreement will “addresssome of the concerns people have raised”about CAFTA’s environmental impact,U.S. Embassy spokeswoman ElaineSamson told The Tico Times this week.According to Andrea Borel, an environmentalspecialist for the U.S. RegionalEnvironmental Office for CentralAmerican and the Caribbean, headquarteredat the U.S. Embassy in San José, theagreement will “establish a framework forcooperation to build capacity” for environmentalprotection, including “strong publicparticipation.”In the text of the pact, officially titledthe Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Environmental CooperationAgreement (DR-CA-US ECA), the parties“agree to cooperate to protect, improve andconserve the environment, including naturalresources.”Such cooperation is to take the form ofthe exchange of delegations and specialistsbetween countries; the joint organization ofconferences and education programs; andthe collection and publication of informationon environmental policies and programs.THE agreement also establishes theDR-CA-US Environmental CooperationCommission, composed of representativesfrom the U.S. Department of State and theother signatory countries’ environmentalministries.The commission’s responsibilities aresomewhat vague, as its priorities and projectsare to be proposed by its members.However, according to the document, itswork program will likely include strengtheninginstitutional and legal environmentalprotection frameworks, promoting bestpractices, and “building capacity to promotepublic participation in the process ofenvironmental decision-making.”The commission will also consider“developing and promoting incentives andother flexible and voluntary mechanismsin order to encourage environmental protections.”SOME Costa Rican environmentalistsdemonstrated skepticism.“This is like a joke,” said Maria ElenaFournier, member and former president ofthe Yiski Conservation Association. Shetold The Tico Times this week the agreementwould allow the United States to“exercise greater control over the naturalresources of our countries.”She also argued any environmentalprogram put forth by the OAS is suspect,because it is U.S.-controlled.“Who directs the OAS?” Fournier said.“This is part of the great package they wantto impose on us.”FOURNIER’S and other conservationists’concerns generally center on theeffect of CAFTA on local sovereignty.Under Costa Rican law – unlike theUnited States – international treaties ratifiedby the Legislative Assembly have ahigher rank than laws, and are second onlyto the Constitution.Because of this, and because CAFTAmakes businesses’ rights a priority, someargue the agreement, once ratified, wouldprevent the Costa Rican government frompassing new laws to protect the environment(TT, June 4, 2004).CAFTA is the first international tradeagreement to include a chapter specificallyon the environment, according to a statementfrom the OAS. However, the environmentalaccord is “standard” for U.S.trade agreements of this nature, accordingto Borel. Similar accords were signed withAustralia, Chile, Jordan and Singapore,and with Canada and Mexico in connectionwith the North American Free-TradeAgreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994.ACCORDING to José María Villalta, alegal analyst who has studied CAFTA’spotential environmental impact, that accorddid not prevent NAFTA from “tying thehands” of local governments in Mexico.Under NAFTA, disagreementsbetween local governments and foreignbusinesses over environmental issues mustbe mediated by the NAFTA Tribunal,located in Vancouver, Canada, Villalta saidat a conference last year. In multiple cases,Mexican environmental groups or municipalgovernments were unable to pay tosend representatives to Vancouver, andtherefore lost their lawsuits.In the case of Metalclad Corp. vs.Mexico, for example, the tribunal’s locationimpeded the local government inGuadalcalzár, a city in San Luis Potosí, in itsattempts to stop the U.S. firm from buildinga hazardous waste dump near the city.The tribunal ruled the government ofMexico owed Metalclad $16.5 million forhaving expropriated the firm’s property,according to the New York Law Journal’sonline publication.Villalta argues similar losses would besuffered here if CAFTA is ratified.However, CAFTA’s chapter on conflictresolution does not call for the creation ofa tribunal or a single location for negotiation,according to the U.S. Embassy.OFFICIALS from Central Americanenvironmental ministries claim CAFTA andits environmental corollary will help, nothurt, conservation efforts here.“The region’s environment and naturalresources are the winners,” HonduranNatural Resources and EnvironmentMinister Patricia Panting said in the OASstatement.Carlos Arturo Harding, Panting’sNicaraguan counterpart, said the environmentalaccord “will allow our nations tosubstantially enhance… our environmentaland natural resource management efforts.”Borel said that unlike CAFTA, the environmentalaccord does not need to be ratifiedby the signatory countries’ legislatures –it took effect when it was signed Feb. 18.Since part of the accord’s stated goal isto help enforce the environmental chapterof CAFTA, however, it is considered parallelto the trade agreement.CAFTA itself, signed by Costa Rica,Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador,Guatemala, the Dominican Republic andthe United States last year, awaits ratificationby the legislatures of every countryexcept El Salvador, which ratified the pactin December (TT, Dec. 24, 2004).If the U.S. Congress ratifies CAFTA, itwill immediately take effect between theUnited States, El Salvador and any othersignatory country that has approved it bythat point.The Environmental Commission willbe managed through the Central AmericanIntegration System (SICA). The agreementobliges the commission to meet at leastonce per year to set its agenda, Borel said.