With the Legislative Assembly’s discussion of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) apparently around the corner, the ongoing debate it has spurred between concerned environmentalists and CAFTA supporters has revealed common ground where all conflicting parties agree: Costa Rica’s environmental legislation is severely handicapped. According to Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the country lacks the capacity to deal with environmental issues such as waste management, water and air pollution.“With or without CAFTA, environmental issues need to be clearly identified,” Rodríguez told The Tico Times, admitting that Costa Rica has problems meeting environmental norms.In this respect, both anti-CAFTA environmentalists and trade agreement supporters agree with Rodríguez, although they remain divided on how the agreement will affect the environment, with differing opinions on issues ranging from commercializing water to modifying exist- ing environmental laws once CAFTAtakes effect.PROPONENTS of CAFTA, signed in 2004 and now ratified by all signatories except Costa Rica, tend to concur that the trade agreement has drawn attention to the need for improved national legislation, but not that the pact itself would cause environmental problems.The worries of some Costa Rican environmentalists can be reduced to “uncertainty about the future,” according to Whitney Witteman, economic section chief at the U.S. Embassy in San José.The report recently released by the Council of Notables – a group of five men President Abel Pacheco asked to study the trade agreement and make recommendations regarding its potential impact on Costa Rica – attributes this fear to the historically negative effect of human economic activity on the environment.According to the Council, which dedicated three pages to the environment in their report, in light of the marks humans have left on the environment – including global warming, the loss of biodiversity and the diminishing availability of water – “the possibility of an increase in economic activity in the country, with or without CAFTA, has awakened apprehension in certain social sectors.”However, the document describes CAFTA as an opportunity to strengthen the country’s environmental legislation, which it describes as “scattered, outdated and contradictory” – a view echoed by Alejandra Aguilar, environmental advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Trade (COMEX).CAFTA will force Costa Rica to enforce its existing environmental legislation, which is not applied adequately, Aguilar said.Chapter 17, dedicated to the environment, establishes that each country should implement its own levels of environmental protection and obligates each country to prevent any damage to the environment that would affect trade.“CAFTA will lead us to strengthen our (environmental) standards as they are established in our country’s laws. It will not loosen these standards – I would like opponents to show me a line (in the document) that says these norms will not be applied,” Aguilar added.According to the advisor, state institutions such as the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) will need to work more efficiently by respecting its deadlines and regulating its activities in order to meet CAFTA demands.HOWEVER, it should not take a trade agreement for these institutions to improve their performance, she said.“It worries me that no environmental group exists here to work toward the improvement of our environmental management – to improve the enforcement of laws,” she said, adding that a discussion on how to prepare the country’s environmental management for CAFTA might be a welcome change in the ongoing debate between CAFTA supporters and concerned environmentalists.Asked about this suggestion, Universidad Nacional biologist Freddy Pacheco responded that he expects nothing less from a COMEX official.“I don’t agree with that opinion. I’m a realist, but I would not like to see CAFTA pass with all its shortcomings,” he told The Tico Times.PACHECO said CAFTA does not promote improvement of Costa Rica’s environmental legislation, but rather restrains its progress, an argument other environmentalists have made in the past, such as José María Villalta, advisor to Citizen Action Party legislators (TT, June 4, 2004). They claim that because the governments of countries where CAFTA is in effect cannot pass new laws that violate the provisions of the trade agreement, the pact would, in effect, “freeze” environmental legislation.“It’s not enough to say the country will meet its environmental laws (under CAFTA). Costa Ricans know our environmental legislation is absolutely deficient,” Pacheco said during a televised debate against Aguilar held at UNA in August. According to Pacheco, who said no one can call him or herself a “CAFTA expert” just yet – because the pact’s impact cannot be evaluated until it is in effect – CAFTA will prevent the country from drafting new environmental laws, and modifications to the existing laws will be considered “expropriations.”Although Chapter 17 highlights that each country can “adopt and modify its environmental laws and policies,” environmentalist Fabián Pacheco, the son of President Abel Pacheco, said the agreement, once ratified, would be superimposed on every one of the country’s laws.UNDER Costa Rican law, international treaties ratified by the Legislative Assembly rank second only to the Constitution and have a higher status than laws.Acountry can be taken to a dispute settlement panel if it changes its environmental laws in a way that violates parameters established under CAFTA.The dispute settlement panel, a World Trade Organization (WTO) method of settling trade disputes, can cost a country millions of dollars whether it wins or loses, Fabián Pacheco explained.Disputes are taken to the WTO Dispute Settlement Body when a WTO member government believes another member government has violated an agreement, according to the WTO Web site.COMEX’SAguilar said the dispute settlement panel only “attempts to guarantee that minimal (trade) conditions will be met.”“It’s not something CAFTAwill bring.We have this option in other trade agreements – with Mexico, for example,” she said.However, Aguilar explained that as a legal principle, laws are not retroactive, and if, for instance, a company acquires a water concession for 10 years and a country’s water law changes within that period, the company cannot be expected to alter its concession – precisely what Freddy Pacheco termed “restraining the progress” of Costa Rica’s environmental legislation.REGARDLESS of the extent of the impact the dispute settlement panel or legislative restrictions will have on the environment, both sides agree the pact’s potential ratification makes strengthening environmental legislation particularly important.According to legislators, the Legislative Assembly has not taken action to prepare the environment for CAFTA. Patriotic Bloc legislator Quírico Jiménez, a member of the assembly’s Environmental Committee, told The Tico Times he wants to remain positive that one environmental measure, a water reform bill, will be approved before CAFTA eventually passes.The bill has been under review in the assembly since May 2002, according to committee president Joyce Zürcher. Aimed to procure sustainability of water, the bill would reform the existing water law, which dates back to 1942 and was recently modified with a decree that increased its cost by 8,000% (TT, September 2).According to Zürcher, the bill would make water a state-owned good and protect the resource – something biologist Pacheco said is one of the areas of greatest concern in the face of CAFTA. He says Costa Rica’s current law does not restrain commercialization of water, which he fears will be exported and exploited under the pact.“In less than 10 years, some 100 million people will be in need of drinking water in the United States,” said the biologist, adding that neither the trade agreement nor the Complementary Agenda addresses the issue of water protection.The agenda does not mention any other environmental issues either, according to legislators.“Nothing has been prepared (for CAFTAby the Assembly), in environmental matters, or anything else,” Jiménez said.