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Photo of logs rolling into a plywood mill in Borneo, Malaysia.

Men work at a plywood mill in Borneo, Malaysia; many endangered trees are cut down around the world.

Photograph by Mattias Klum, National Geographic

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published January 17, 2014

A leaked draft of a major free trade agreement among the United States, Canada, Mexico, and nations on the Pacific Rim raises alarming questions about environmental protections, several leading green groups say.

"If the environment chapter is finalized as written in this leaked document, President Obama's environmental trade record would be worse than George W. Bush's," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement after a draft of the agreement was published Wednesday on WikiLeaks.

"This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues—oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections—and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts," he said.

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is a huge pact that would govern about 40 percent of the world's gross domestic product and one-third of world trade, said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The agreement involves a sprawling cast of countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.

The NRDC joined with the Sierra Club and WWF in criticizing the leaked draft of the environment chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange said proved the chapter was "a toothless public relations exercise with no enforcement mechanism."

The White House has pushed back against such criticisms. In a blog post responding to the leak this week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) wrote that "stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) or we will not come to agreement."

Here are four grievances voiced by environmental groups over the leaked chapter:

1. They say the pact lacks basic environmental provisions.

This is all about what's not in the proposed pact.

The NRDC's Schmidt says that environmental groups are asking for "some pretty basic environmental provisions.

"We're saying don't subsidize unsustainable fisheries and don't do illegal things," he said.

Environmentalists say that the Obama White House has hinted that it will not support an agreement without enforceable environmental provisions, in recent remarks by some of the administration's key environmental players.

But the "overarching" problem with the leaked draft, Schmidt says, is that "there's no enforcement."

The leaked document mentions that trade partners should take steps to protect the environment, but Schmidt says that "there are many caveats that effectively allow countries to not make these enforceable.

"References to the word 'shall' are very rarely used," he says, "and are often paired with 'seek to' or 'attempt,' which are not legally enforceable."

2. Green groups say the draft agreement does not discourage overfishing.

The nations considering the Trans-Pacific Partnership have a "responsibility" to provide adequate protection against overfishing, but the draft agreement fails to provide that, said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of WWF.

The countries negotiating the agreement account for about a third of global fisheries production, Roberts notes, so the stakes are high.

Those countries have a range of direct and indirect subsidies for their fishing fleets, including payments, discounted loans, reduced prices on fuel, and so on.

Photo of shark fins drying in the sun cover the roof of a factory building in Hong Kong.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANTONY DICKSON, AFP/GETTY
Shark fins, which are overharvested for soup, dry on the roof of a factory in Hong Kong.

"What we have been pushing for is for countries to phase out harmful subsidies ... that lead to greater harvest of fishing stocks than can be sustained," said Schmidt. "We're not saying end all fishing programs and support, but you need to make sure that any support is targeted at programs that don't lead to overconsumption of fish stocks."

For its part, the U.S. Trade Representative's office responded that the U.S. is "proposing that the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] include, for the first time in any trade or environment agreement, groundbreaking prohibitions on fish subsidies that set a new and higher baseline for fisheries protections."

3. The pact does not take a strong enough stance against illegal wildlife products, activists say.

Green groups would like to see stronger enforcement of international laws on products made from endangered species, such as elephant ivory or tiger pelts, as part of a new trade agreement.

"The lack of fully-enforceable environmental safeguards means negotiators are allowing a unique opportunity to protect wildlife and support legal sustainable trade of renewable resources to slip through their fingers," WWF's Roberts said in a statement.

The negotiating countries are already party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits overseas trade of endangered species, "but we know that enforcement is not 100 percent," Schmidt said.

4. Green groups say the agreement doesn't go far enough in preventing illegal logging.

Many endangered trees are cut down around the world, often through logging in restricted areas such as parks, sometimes under the cover of darkness. The U.S. has a law, known as the amended Lacey Act, that prohibits import of illegally logged timber products. Australia has a similar law, and Japan is considering one.

The NRDC and allied groups want each country that signs onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership to enact an equivalent law.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

5 comments
Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

How can the US Trade Representative state that "stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) or we will not come to agreement?"

How do those supposed values conform to the US refusing to sign the Kyoto agreements? The US wouldn't sign the Kyoto accords and happily continues to pollute the world's atmosphere simply because US trade and industry would lose too much money. The same psyche would obviously apply to the nature and wildlife of the Pacific.   

craig hill
craig hill

When are liberals going to bite the bullet and open their welded-shut eyes to Obama's screaming conservatism? And then actually revolt from it? Their support assures the continuation of Republican policies in THEIR party.

The sooner we all disengage from either party the sooner the entire fraud crumbles. Support for the Democratic Party INSURES the continuation of the Republican Party! Without the Dems, the majority of the country would create a new party of principles, whose Rule #1 would be "No Candidate Will Be Allowed To Go Against The Following Policy:"... Such a party would OVERWHELM the Republicans, instead of aping them.

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