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Nature vs. NAFTA: Death Of Birds Provides First Test


THE December deaths of more than 40,000 migratory birds at a polluted central Mexico reservoir is set to become the first test case of NAFTA's environmental side accord.

Environmentalists from Mexico and the United States are hoping to use the 18-month-old trade pact to turn the massive bird deaths into a model of international cleanup and conservation. On June 7, they filed a petition asking the North American Free Trade Agreement's Commission for Environmental Cooperation to investigate both the bird kill and responses to it.

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"If we can combine pressure from the commission with support from the Mexican government and cooperation from environmentalists and international funding sources, we can actually turn this tragedy into a model success story," says Eric Dannenmaier, a Washington-based lawyer representing the petitioning organizations. The petitioners are the National Audubon Society, Mexico's Group of 100, and the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.

The Montreal-based NAFTA environment commission has not yet decided whether it will undertake the investigation. But in January Victor Lichtinger, the commission's executive director, told the Monitor that "our commission was created to deal with cases like this."

Environmentalists consider the case an ideal one for the commission because it clearly concerns all three NAFTA members. "Migratory birds are a shared resource of all North American countries," says Kathleen Rogers, an Audubon Society representative.

Mr. Lichtinger is scheduled to meet with Mexican environmental authorities this week and to tour the site of the bird kills before the commission makes a decision.

The migratory and local birds included many from species on US endangered lists and a few protected by an international (US, Canada, Mexico) accord. They perished over a six-week period in December and January at the 300-acre Silva Reservoir near Leon in Mexico's central Guanajuato state. Local environmental groups suspected untreated industrial runoff from the area's tanning industry in the birds' deaths.

A government investigation concluded that the kill resulted from a massive dumping of the pesticide endosulfan by unidentified individuals. But that satisfied neither environmentalists nor reservoir-area residents. Environmentalists wondered why few fish died when endosulfan is more toxic to fish than birds, while many residents had earlier reported reported health problems from contact with Silva's waters.

The reservoir has since been drained. The government has also announced a Turbio Basin Initiative, named after the river that runs through Leon to a series of reservoirs like Silva, to foster a cooperative cleanup of the area's industry.

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But local residents and Mexican environmentalists worry that without significant pressure the new initiative will be forgotten, as was a similar effort announced in 1991.

Referring to the Silva case, Group of 100 president Homero Aridjis says, "This type of 'accident' is occurring with growing frequency in Mexico, where investigations begin, but in the end the responsible parties are not found." The real problem, he says, is a lack of definition and application of Mexico's existing environmental laws.

Environmentalists believe the NAFTA environment accord can be used to create pressure needed to require action and develop a cooperative international response to the Turbio basin's pollution. Once the commission's report pinpoints pollution sources, they say, such sources as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and others could be tapped for financing.

Education and "green" technology programs could be developed with local industries as well. As one example, Mr. Dannenmaier notes that Mexican tanneries use a dangerous type of chromium that US tanners gave up years ago. "US tanneries could be tapped to help with developing cleaner procedures," he says. "That kind of action could turn into a partial solution."

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