Global Stench

There is perhaps no better place to study the effects of the globalization of the world economy than the Tijuana--San Diego border region. There, migrant labor camps abut the bountiful malls of Anglo suburbs, just miles from streets where barefoot Indian children uprooted from southern Mexico beg well-fed tourists for pocket change. Billions of dollars a year flow in to keep the largest naval fleet in the world lethal and afloat just offshore and across a high steel fence from the thousands of men and women who flock from every corner of Mexico to sell their labor for a dollar an hour in factories owned by American, Asian and European corporations. Others pay small fortunes and risk their lives for a chance to enter the land of plenty, awaited on every ridge by armed immigration agents, while, in a stark microcosm of global power relations, young women from rural villages fill the bars and line the streets to sell their bodies to American men, carefree and with dollars to spend. The border region is, in the words of anthropologist Juan Manuel Sandoval, a speaker at last weekend‘s Festival of the Globalphobics, ”a laboratory for globalization.“

Held in the Casa de Cultura, a grand brick building on a hill overlooking downtown Tijuana and, in the distance, the bare hills of southern San Diego County, the conference took its name from a term coined by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to belittle the enemies of his neoliberal economic policies. It was organized by activist groups on both sides of the border united by their rejection of corporate globalization ”in favor of a democratic, people’s movement for a globalization with human rights, economic justice, social well-being, environmental sustainability and international solidarity.“

Groups from San Diego and Tijuana have worked together sporadically in the past, protesting the militarization of the border, the exploitation of maquiladora workers, and police brutality in both cities. But, says organizer Enrique Davalos, ”even though we are very close, sometimes we are very far.“ The conference, he says, was meant to be a first step toward creating formal networks of collaboration for a binational movement to fight the injustices brought about by corporate globalization. It was inspired, according to Davalos, who teaches history at San Diego‘s City College and the University of Baja California, both by the Zapatista movement, which in 1994 first pushed the excesses of globalization into the world’s gaze, and, more recently, by last year‘s shutdown of the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, which united labor, environmental and human-rights groups in a common fight.

A similarly diverse array of forces was present at the Festival of the Globalphobics. About 200 people attended Saturday’s workshops. Activists from Amnesty International, the Green Party, Global Exchange, the Committee for Solidarity in the Americas and other groups crossed the border from the north, as did an entire class of students from Claremont‘s Pitzer College. Representatives of the Zapatista National Liberation Front (the civilian wing of the Zapatista National Liberation Army), the Tijuana-based Workers Support Center, the Baja California Women’s Network, the environmental organization Grupo Gaviota and many others came from Tijuana, Ensenada, Rosarito and Mexico City.

In workshops on subjects ranging from the environment and labor rights to immigration and the militarization of the border, activists tied their individual concerns to the broader context of neoliberal policies and trade agreements like NAFTA that, in the words of Global Exchange organizer Juliette Beck, ”have meant that, far too often, human rights are sacrificed, the environment is sacrificed, all in the name of corporate profits.“

If the effects of corporate globalization are often something of an abstraction for American activists, they are very real for Lourdes Lujan and Olga Rendon, who drove from Tijuana‘s Colonia Chilpancingo to the conference. Chilpancingo is a neighborhood of more than 1,000 families perched just beneath the large industrial park at Otay Mesa, where many of the colonia’s inhabitants work. In 1994, Metales y Derivados, a lead smelter and car-battery recycler, closed and abandoned its plant on Otay Mesa, leaving behind thousands of tons of lead waste and corroding batteries, contaminating the local water supply. The water that runs through an open arroyo stretching from the mesa into the colonia, which passes through the grounds of the neighborhood kindergarten, according to Rendon, is black and foul-smelling. ”Children play in it,“ she says. ”They don‘t know.“

The neighborhood suffers high rates of infant mortality, asthma, birth defects and cancer. When both the plant’s owner (who lives, Rendon says, ”en el otro lado“) and the Mexican government failed to clean up the site, community activists brought their case to the NAFTA-created Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), which took a year and a half before agreeing to investigate the situation in May. ”They haven‘t done anything,“ Rendon complains. ”They know all about the problem, and they haven’t done anything.“

It is unlikely that they will. The NAFTA ”side agreements“ that offer nominal environmental and labor-rights guarantees, says Guillermo Mayer, an aide to state Senator Tom Hayden, are completely unenforceable. The most the CEC can do is make the results of its investigation public; it cannot compel corporations or governments to act. In another case this year, workers from Tijuana‘s Han Young maquiladora, who had been prevented from forming an independent union, were beaten when they tried to attend a seminar set up under the NAFTA process to discuss their situation.

Mayer contrasts this process with the recourse NAFTA gives corporations to fight local laws that interfere with their ability to profit. When Governor Gray Davis signed an order banning the gasoline additive MTBE, a carcinogen that worms its way into ground water, the Canadian company Methanex, which produces a component of the additive, used NAFTA to sue the United States, demanding damages of $970 million or the repeal of the ban. In a similar case, the government of Mexico was forced to pay a Newport Beach--based company $16.7 million when the state of San Luis Potosi refused to let it build a toxic-waste dump. The closed-door tribunal that decides such cases is made up of just three individuals, one representing the corporation, one representing the offending nation, and another chosen by both parties. ”This is a situation where a company has the same power as an entire nation,“ Mayer says, adding, ”Globalization is marginalizing institutions, not just people -- institutions like the California Legislature.“

Some specific proposals came out of the weekendlong conference, including a campaign against Operation Gatekeeper, the border-patrol program that has heavily fortified populated border regions like San Diego and resulted in the deaths of nearly 600 immigrants; and protests on the border and in the migrant-farm-worker community of San Quintin set to coincide with an April 2001 meeting in Quebec to establish a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas, a NAFTA-like trade agreement that would cover all of North and South America. The weekend’s most important accomplishment, most participants agreed, was to open lines of communication between the Californias and lay the framework for a binational network of activist groups that could coordinate efforts on both sides of the border. ”It‘s historic,“ said Global Exchange’s Beck. ”To transcend national differences and class differences is very challenging. This conference has achieved that. We‘ve definitely planted seeds for long-term organizing.“#

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