David Suzuki: The downside of global trade

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      Global trade has advantages. For starters, it allows those of us who live through winter to eat fresh produce year-round. And it provides economic benefits to farmers who grow that food. That could change as oil, the world’s main transport fuel, becomes increasingly scarce, hard to obtain and costly, but we’ll be trading with other nations for the foreseeable future.

      Because countries often have differing political and economic systems, agreements are needed to protect those invested in trade. Canada has signed numerous deals, from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to several Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (FIPA), and is subject to the rules of global trade bodies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

      Treaties, agreements, and organizations to help settle disputes may be necessary, but they often favour the interests of business over citizens. With Canada set to sign a 31-year trade deal with China, a repressive and undemocratic country with state-owned corporations, we need to be cautious.

      Should we sign agreements if they subject our workers to unfair competition from lower-paid employees from investor nations, hinder our ability to protect the environment or give foreign companies and governments excessive control over local policies and valuable resources? Under some agreements, basics like protecting the air, water and land we all need for survival can become difficult and expensive.

      One recent case could put Canada on the hook for $250 million. Quebec has put a hold on fracking pending a study into the environmental impacts of blasting massive amounts of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture rock and release gas deposits. A U.S. resource company plans to sue Canada under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, claiming compensation for the moratorium’s damage to its drilling interests. Similar disputes have already cost Canada millions of dollars.

      Ontario also wants assurances that fracking is safe before it allows the practice. That province is facing costs and hurdles because of another conflict between trade and environment. Japan and the European Union filed a complaint with the WTO, claiming a requirement under the Ontario Green Energy Act that wind and solar projects must use a set percentage of local materials is unfair.

      Many of the problems arise because of an investor-state arbitration mechanism, which is included in NAFTA, as well as the proposed Canada-China FIPA, Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership. It allows foreign investors to bring claims before outside arbitrators if they believe their economic interests are being harmed by a nation’s actions or policies. So economics trump national interests.

      This has caused many countries, including Australia, South Africa, India, and several in Latin America, to avoid signing deals that include the investor-state arbitration mechanism. In Australia’s case, the country recognized the pitfalls when tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, attempted to claim damages under a bilateral investment treaty after the federal government introduced a science-based law requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain, unappealing packages.

      According to Australian National University law professor Thomas Faunce, Philip Morris then lobbied the U.S. government to include a similar mechanism in a new trade agreement it was negotiating with Australia. In an article for Troy Media, Faunce wrote that, with such a mechanism, the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes “would, in effect, become the final arbitrators on major Australian public policy questions concerning mineral royalties, fossil fuel and renewable energy, water, telecommunications, banking, agriculture and power.”

      The 31-year trade agreement between Canada and China is worrisome, with its 15-year opt-out clause (compared to just six months for NAFTA), but the inclusion of the mechanism in other agreements is also cause for concern. At the very least, we could be on the hook for millions or billions of dollars if our environmental, health, labour or other policies were deemed to harm the interests of those investing in or trading with Canada.

      The government’s desire to expand global trade may be understandable, but we mustn’t give away too much. We must tell our elected representatives to at least delay the Canada-China FIPA until it has been examined more thoroughly, and to reconsider the inclusion of investor-state arbitration mechanisms in all trade deals.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online.




      Dec 5, 2012 at 12:12am

      it's simple. go back to basics. grow local, live local and use candles.
      then all "problems" disappear.

      Don't worry!

      Dec 5, 2012 at 3:32am

      So many people want to fight globalization, but the fight is over.

      It's time for stage two: the joining and globalization of labour, environmental, and social justice movements.

      Imagine a fusion between those movements, striking the leviathans of global repression in their soft spots while they breathe fire on our human brothers and sisters elsewhere. Imagine a global network of conscience, accepting of (sometimes vast) differences, but strongly cognizant of the more significant similarities inherent in our shared human condition, and willing to act. Imagine a global general strike - it could happen! Easily!

      Look at history: did the allies back down in the face of a seemingly invincible Hitler? Did the Americans back down when they chose to revolt against the British, the most powerful nation in the world? Did the Poles back down when they chose to join in solidarity against communism? Did Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, or Gandhi back down? Did Solzhenitsyn back down? Did Allende back down? Did Spartacus back down?

      We are priviliged to live here, in this beautiful country, the most multicultural country in the world, the country that Thomas Berger called "the prototype nation state of the 21st Century." Let's live up to that ideal! Let's show them that Canada DESERVES a place in history as the nation-state that brought on - or at least influenced, through its unique virtues and riches - the move to the unity of the human race in justice, freedom, and peace!


      Dec 5, 2012 at 10:40am

      Bored, all except using candles and I'm in. From the looks of 3D-printing, geo-thermal energy, localized farming and water supplies and localized telecom and internet networks, we seem to all be going that way soon enough. Back to the old days, but in a new way. No illuminati, no communist dictatorships, no holy hierarchies. Mind you, America and Eurasia can doubtlessly go it alone independently of each other, but the rest of the planet maybe not so. So, it will really be like ancient times again. Preferably not a "Soylent Green" or "No Blade Of Grass", although they had some very interesting ideas of it all.