An unlikely pair among local groups is raising concerns with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), an initiative that President Bush is hoping to bring to the floor for a vote this month. The Sierra Club and San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau are expressing hesitation about the agreement.
CAFTA is essentially an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Groups like Human Rights Watch say CAFTA will have devastating effects on the urban poor and rural farmers in these Central American countries, while other groups like the Sierra Club are concerned that CAFTA does not implement sufficient environmental standards.
The San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau is concerned how CAFTA will affect SLO County farmers and ranchers.
â€œWeâ€™re not opposing it,â€? said Joy Fitzhugh of the SLO County Farm Bureau. â€œBut we want to have a discussion about it.â€?
According to the February 2005 issue of Farmer and Rancher Magazine, â€œFree Trade Agreements [have] numerous problems, such as the uneven playing field relating to U.S. approved/acceptable pesticide use â€¦ and other crop production practices, versus those practices accepted in foreign countries.â€?
Recently, SLO County Farm Bureau leaders met with Congressman Bill Thomasâ€™ staff to discuss their apprehensions.
â€œOne major concern,â€? according to Farmer and Rancher Magazine that was expressed to Thomas is, â€œthat U.S. and California agricultural exports have been traded away by our government, leaving our own farmer/ranchers at a disadvantage.â€?
A delegation from the local chapter of the Sierra Club also met representatives for Congressman Bill Thomas to publicly oppose CAFTA. Thomas represents the 22nd District, which includes sections of Kern and SLO counties. Bakersfield, Paso Robles, and Arroyo Grande are all in the 22nd district.
â€œThere may be an economic advantage, but weâ€™re not feeling totally sure as far as the physical health of the industry,â€? said Fitzhugh.
In a letter delivered to Thomas, the Sierra Club wrote, â€œCAFTA sacrifices state and national sovereignty by shifting power from democratic governments to corporations, giving them broad rights to challenge community and environmental protections.â€?
Proponents of CAFTA say that the agreement would help promote democracy and economic reform in Central America.
â€œThe proposed free trade agreement with the United States would commit these countries to even greater openness and transparency, which would deepen the roots of democracy, civil society, and the rule of law in the region, as well as reinforce market reforms,â€? said a statement on the Whitehouseâ€™s web site.
Others, like Sue Harvey of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, disagree.
â€œPeople donâ€™t realize theyâ€™re giving up the foundation of democracy for cheap lettuce,â€? she said. â€œIt is like a silent coup dâ€™etat by international corporations, securing their position above our laws and legal systems. And the public is clueless.â€?
Perhaps not. A recent poll conducted by www.americansforfairtrade.org found that 51 percent of Americans oppose CAFTA. According to the poll, voters were most concerned with domestic job loss and a negative effect on the American economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA eliminated 880,000 jobs in the U.S., and opponents fear that similar losses would occur under CAFTA.
â€œThe Sierra Club isnâ€™t opposed to international trade,â€? said Harvey in a Sierra Club press release, â€œweâ€™re opposed to trade agreements that take crucial decisions out of the hands of democratically elected representatives and give them to corporate tribunals.â€?
Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org