NAFTA’s Environmental Destruction in Matamoros

The Ironweed Film Club interviewed Steve Mills of the Sierra Club about his new short film, Matamoros: The Human Face of Globalization.  Here is what he had to reveal:

In February of 2001, the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors met with local groups in Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Tamaulipas to assess the environmental damage inflicted by the rapid industrialization of the border. Our board was so stunned by what they saw that the visit prompted the creation of a multi-year project to support Mexican grassroots environmental and community organizations in their fight for environmental justice. In partnership with The Sierra Club Foundation, the Sierra Club’s “Beyond the Borders – Mexico Project”, including its grant component, was created.  We wanted to highlight the shortcomings of NAFTA and other similar international trade agreements that fail to protect worker’s health and the environment. We also wanted to educate American consumers about the impact that our industries and our consumption was and is having abroad.

The Sierra Club explains the detailed history behind NAFTA’s disregard for environmental and human rights concerns in the small border town of Matamoros, where the maquiladoras (tariff-free factories on the U.S.-Mexican borders) became one of the fastest growing industries:

Low Wages, Long Hours

  • One of the main goals of Mexico’s Border Industrialization Program was to attract foreign investment. In order to do that, Mexican labor must remain cheap and competitive with other major export countries to keep the United States firms operating within the Mexican assembly plants.
  • To keep production high and costs low, maquiladoras have been accused of harsh working environments, which include low wages, forced overtime, and illegal working conditions for minors.
  • Employee turnover is also relatively high, reaching up to 80 percent in some maquiladoras, due in part to stress and health threats common to this type of labor.

Environmental Concerns

  • Although the La Paz Agreement signed by Mexico and the United States in 1983 requires hazardous waste created by United States’ corporations to be transported back to the U.S. for disposal, many companies avoid paying disposal costs by dumping toxins and other waste into Mexico’s rivers or deserts.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 91 of the 600 maquiladoras located along the Texas-Mexico border have returned waste to the United States since 1987.
  • Although NAFTA recognizes the need to prevent hazardous waste, Mexico’s waste imports have nearly doubled in recent years, and most of this waste comes from the United States.
  • Local Mexican governments have financially been unable to provide basic waste management services because maquiladoras pay few taxes, and as a result, there is more of an economic incentive to illegally dump hazardous waste than to safely and properly dispose of it.
  • According to the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP), all streams and rivers in the border region have suffered some amount of devastation as a consequence of the maquila industry.
  • Along with water contamination, health-threatening levels of pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, are also emitted into the air. Ongoing exposure to toxic wastes can contribute to health problems such as cancer, skin disease, hepatitis, and birth defects.
  • Mexico does not have any laws requiring industries to publicize basic environmental data on their operations, and so Mexico does not keep a very accurate inventory of hazardous waste.
For more information on the maquiladora industry and the Sierra Club, visit the following links:

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