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Beyond NAFTA:
2000 North American Youth Conference

Session 3: Environment

The issues of sustainable development have taken a larger and more nuanced role in discussions of economic integration and growth, the persistence of poverty, possibilities of development, and the integrity of the environment.  Sustainable development is usually understood as economic activity that does not diminish the resources and productive capabilities of future generations, focusing on issues of renewable resources and energy, pollution, and individual responsibilities to reduce, reuse and recycle.  However new ideas and new understandings have arisen in recent years which link sustainable development more closely with social processes and cohesion, resulting in the collapse of distinctions between economics, politics, culture, and the environment.  These concepts have grabbed the attention of creative thinkers, policy makers and students whose post-NAFTA experiences have given them different understandings of their world and how to protect it.  The conference hoped to explore the participantsf ideas of sustainable development and how it could be assured throughout North America, integrating social and environmental concerns and understandings with processes of economic integration and governance.  Although the concept of sustainable development has been gaining popularity  in government and business declarations, the participants were asked to discuss how rhetoric has been translated into practice.  Participants were asked to consider such questions as the legacy of NAFTA on the environment, the record of the Commission on Environmental Co-operation, and the separation of environmental concerns from other issues.


Guest Speaker: Christine Elwell (Canada)

Christine Elwell, Trade Campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada, launched the discussion.  Speaking
on sustainable development in the North American and global context, Ms. Elwell indicated that NAFTA, the OAS, and by extension, the development of the FTAA, is proving unresponsive to the social and environmental costs of trade liberalisation and the necessary roles of civil society.  Linking the growth of poverty and the increasingly difficult task of social and environmental sustainability with the continued expansion of the North American economy, she insisted that the environment could not be dismissed as an unrelated issue with respect to trade, and that gonly by dealing with the environment, economy and social justice together can we get to a state of sustainable development.h

Indicating that gthere is no right to develop at any environmental and social costs,h Ms. Elwell illustrated the problem of giving priority to economic agendas and rationales, and the harm wrought on localities and their social and environmental conservation strategies.  In fact, localities emerged as both the victims of economic integration, and the greatest hope for sustainable development.  Highlighting how social and environmental costs are borne disproportionately within specific localities, Ms. Elwell stressed that only through integrating local concerns and needs into political and economic decision-making, can sustainable development take place.  Any etradef agreement, such as NAFTA, that fails to satisfactorily take the environmental, economic and communal aspects of integration into account is believed to be gincompetent.h

Convinced of the possibilities for orchestrated and committed social action, Ms. Elwell encouraged the participants to think seriously about sustainable development, to bolster their efforts by rigorous research, and in the lead up to the April, 2001 FTAA meeting in Quebec City, to create an American Environmental Network to ensure citizen involvement and the integration of sustainable social and environmental priorities in any agreement.

Participant Presentations and Discussion

Participants, led by Federico Cantero (Mexico), Michael Dorsey (United States), and Gerald Villegas (Canada) agreed that sustainable development involves far more than strictly economic considerations of industrial efficiency and eexternalities,f and that it involves the complex interrelation of economies, communities, cultures, and their environments.  The presentations centred on the themes of eco-tourism, economic democracy and environmental industrialism.  The contemporary importance and huge potential of the future social and environmentally sustainable tourism industry, highlighted that sustainable development involves more than industrial plants, technologies, and consumption patterns covered in emainstreamf discussions.  Representing around 15% of Mexican GDP, eco-tourism offers economic, environmental and socially sustainable alternatives, particularly for the traditionally marginalised peoples of the south and north, namely the indigenous, ethnic, and linguist minorities.  Importantly, eco-tourism was also identified as empowering local decision-making structures, by furthering local knowledge, experience, customs and priorities.  In this way, the path of sustainable development was recognised as cutting across and illuminating issues of governance and culture.

Addressing the unsustainability of the gI Generationh which attempts to separate personal consumption from larger political, economic and environmental issues, and continues to develop alongside economic globalisation and North American integration, the discussion turned to issues of economic democracy and how it can be fostered.  It was asserted that questions of sustainable development could not be separated from issues of resource distribution and mechanisms of political control and community empowerment.  How a society decides to utilise resources, for what goals and in what manner, were seen to involve questions of democracy.  In other words, who has power, and who is excluded?  It was asserted that sustainable communities and environments will remain unrealised so long as those who bear the unequal brunt of developmental costs are excluded from decision-making, while the business and political elite who enjoy unjust benefits continue to wield power.  Again, the environment was able to bring together the diverse issues of the conference in a concrete fashion.

In his discussion of gSustainable Development, A Canadian Perspective,h Gerald Villegas turned the debate back to issues of environmental industrialism, or how to balance demands for continued economic development and integration with environmental and community concerns.  Concretely linking NAFTA and accelerated economic edevelopmentf with a transportation boom and subsequent environmental challenges, the participants considered the details of a Green Transportation Corridor extending through North America, and connected by eclean cities,f offering knowledge and suggestions regarding alternative fuels.  Throughout the three presentations and the discussions that followed it was stressed that economic indicators must be expanded to include quality of life concerns, and the protection of the environment.  Sustainable development must be understood as encompassing economic, environmental, social, cultural and political issues.  Furthermore, it was most vehemently demanded that questions of sustainable development, in its fullest expression, be discussed, decided and implemented with greater local involvement and concern.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary


Opening Session & Session 1:  Culture
 Guest Speaker: Alberto Ruy-Sanchez Lacy
 Participant Presentations and  Discussion

Session 2:  Governance
 Guest Speaker: Prof. John D. Wirth
 Participant Presentations and Discussion

Session 3:  Sustainable Development
Guest Speaker: Christine Elwell
 Participant Presentations and Discussion

Concluding Session

Appendix:  Conference Agenda and List of Participants