Trade and the Environment: The WTO?s effect on the enviroment following the second World War, a document known as GATT, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was established with hopes of increasing trade and helping ease tensions between nations. Through a system of rounds and meetings, tariffs between countries were lowered, increasing trade. The past half century since the creation of GATT has seen an immense increase in worldwide trade. Resulting from one of these “rounds,” where nations meet to discuss trade issues, an organization known as the WTO, or the World Trade Organization, was created after the Uruguay Round of 1986-1994. With the lofty goals of uniting countries for the benefits of economic prosperity, the WTO has
put together a series of documents explaining its positions; a constitution of sorts.
One of the major issues that is fought by activists and environmentalists worldwide is the WTO?s effect on the environment. In the past year alone, several massive protests have occurred at the meeting of WTO officials in several different countries. Protests such as the ones seen in Seattle and Prague are examples of the reactions taken by opponents to the WTO. These protesters have a very legitimate point that needs to be heard, and they are backed with substantial evidence supporting their claim of the harmful effects of this organization not only in environmental terms, but in basic human rights issues as well. The World Trade Organization is a harmful force to Earth?s biosphere and has shown increasingly harmful effects on the environment. The WTO as an Organization As mentioned before, the WTO was created on January 1, 1995, as
a result of the Uruguay Round Negotiations. Currently consisting of 140 members worldwide, it is based with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and has a secretary staff of over five hundred. The organization of the WTO consists of a head Ministerial Conference, with branches of a General Council, Trade Review Body, and Dispute Settlement Body. Below these branches lie several councils and committees to deal with many different trade issues. One branch consists of a committee with the name Trade and the Environment, which concerns itself with issues relating to trade and the environment. Overseeing the organization of the WTO is the director-general, currently Michael Moore. The basis for all WTO decisions lies in its multilateral trading system, where a large amount of agreements that are negotiated and signed by members must finally be ratified in each country?s individual Senate. While the individual agreements are signed and ratified by each country?s government, the primary purpose of the
legislation is to assist the country?s producers, exporters, and importers. The overall goal of the WTO is to make trade freer, resulting in, claims the WTO, a promotion of peace worldwide, an increase in income and a stimulation of economic growth. As part of its preamble, the WTO claims an interest in the environment, and thus created the Committee on Trade and the Environment to make decisions when environmental issues are involved. The preamble itself states it will promote trade “while allowing for the optimal use of the world?s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development, seeking both to protect and preserve the environment.” The organization, in the past few years, however, has encouraged a lower tariff universally, thereby encouraging producers to look towards less developed countries as prime places for cheap labor and low regulations, especially low regulations relating to the environment. These less developed countries, or LDCs, are known universally for having very cheap, productive labor, and are not even close to having the environmental protection efforts seen in the United States and Europe. So these countries are encouraged to make waste of the land and save profits. Yet the WTO maintains that freer trade will benefit all, and their concern for the environment is shown in the existence of a council concerned with only environmental matters. The
Committee on Trade and Environment, or CTE, was created during the foundation of the WTO to deal with a broad-based mandate dealing with the relationships between trade and the environment. There exist many provisions in the WTO to give the CTE the right to change policies when an environmental issue is at question. When an agreement is in dispute, the CTE will interpret the section, usually from the original GATT Articles, and make a ruling. Such a dispute occurred between the WTO and the United States dealing with a US imposed ban on imported shrimp from certain countries where they declared their fishing methods were improper. In this case, the fishers failed to use turtle-excluding devices in their nets, causing the unwanted and inhumane deaths of many rare sea turtles. However, the WTO and CTE ruled that the United States could not impose such a ban because this and other bans like it are illegal trade barriers. Essentially, this decision let it be known that the U.S. cannot
decide whom it gets to trade with, and what the country trades. Countless examples of these types of incidents have arisen, along with numerous issues of water and forest conservation. With injustices visible in this multi-lateral trading system, and these problems being dealt with poorly by the WTO, it becomes obvious that this organization is a harmful force to our planet. Effects of the World Trade Organization on the Environment Environmentalists around the globe have united to visibly show resentment for the policies of the WTO, seen especially in the recent protests in Seattle and Prague. Of particular success was the protest in Seattle in 1999, where activists from all over the country converged to completely shut down the meeting, as no actual work or agreements ever were looked at. One of the very controversial topics that was to be discussed at the meeting dealt with the timber industry and the lowering of tariffs to that continue, an agreement is being rushed towards completion called the “accelerated tariff elimination.” It deals with eight separate industries, among those industries forest products, fish, and energy. With the reduction or elimination of such tariffs, efforts to capitalize within these industries would increase. Worldwide, the greatest effect would be in small LDC?s that have little or no environmental regulation to protect the forests from rapid destruction. According to Sierra Club senior trade fellow Dan Seligman, “A leaked timber industry study predicts a world wide hike in wood consumption if the forest products agreement is signed.” Thus global demand and global production of raw timber would rise, and poor countries with large forests would capitalize. These countries would most likely step up deforestation, and have no programs like the United States has for re-foresting areas that have been logged. The beauty of such areas like Tibet, where many of its thickly forested areas have already been wiped out, would recede to become a scene of destruction of a raped land. Also related to the tariff lowering agreement is the current WTO pursuit to decide the fate of recycling. This absurd measure would include provisions saying recycling is an illegal limit on the paper trade. With this measure, it would make it illegal to recycle paper, and all countries within the WTO would be forced to comply. How can a country as powerful, environmental, and conscious as the United States let an international
organization ruled by corporations determined on raising profits for the rich tell them what they can do concerning recycling? With these types of problems already existing in the WTO, it is obvious that a change needs to be made. Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGO?s are now very active in the pursuit to encourage the WTO to consider environmental needs. Where once these groups were simply considered advocacy groups, they have matured into participants in the global struggle for environmental rights. This environmental movement has gained momentum and it is becoming obvious that big business and big government are now going to have to deal and engage with NGO?s when making public policy. Another part of trying to change policy is the education of the public, at which many of these same NGO?s have been quite successful. More and more citizens are becoming aware of the urgent problems associated with free trade. The WTO claims that it seeks to promote free trade, and I think if that is the one goal, all of us would encourage them to do so. However, free trade will be impossible in this world, given the inequalities of poor countries and the general nature of humanity. The WTO is composed of rich corporate
men and women who seek only to increase money flow worldwide. Currently they are seeking to expand control over individual governments, forcing countries to nullify laws passed which they declare to “limit trade.” It is clearly obvious that the WTO is already having detrimental effects on the environment, as seen in the example of fishing regulations in LDC?s who cannot afford to protect against unneeded deaths of endangered species. To help the problem, NGO?s have risen up all over the world to fight these deforesting promotions among other environmental concerns. Yet the WTO is fatally flawed beyond correction. A new organization is needed, one that will consider environmental concerns and not only consider whether or not a corporation will increase its wealth.