University of Cambridge > > Department of Geography - main Departmental seminar series > Neoliberalism and the environment revisited: The North American Free Trade Agreement and the US-Mexico border 20 years on

Neoliberalism and the environment revisited: The North American Free Trade Agreement and the US-Mexico border 20 years on

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Charlie Barlow.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force in January 1994, breaking down trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico. Strong opposition from unions and activists resulted in environmental and labor side agreements that established some oversight and new institutions. We drew on trade theory, political economy, and especially critiques of neoliberalism to analyze the likely impacts of NAFTA , especially in Mexico and along the US-Mexico border (Liverman and Vilas 2006; Vilas-Ghiso and Liverman 2007; Liverman et al. 1999; Gallagher 2004). Those who opposed free trade and neoliberal policies in Mexico (including social movements such as the Zapatistas) forecast devastating impacts on Mexican landscapes and livelihoods. Theoretically, NAFTA provides an important case for evaluating geographical perspectives on neoliberalism – and the value of approaches that connect material nature, political economy, social agency, discourse, and governmentality that constitute political ecology (Robbins 2011).

This lecture will compare what was projected in terms of the environmental impacts and benefits of the trade agreement with the state of the debate and the material environment 20 years later. The focus is on the US-Mexico border region and draws on reviews of literature, critical institutional analysis, longitudinal datasets, and interviews with key individuals on both sides of the border who have worked long-term in the region on environmental issues. While the impacts of NAFTA on the environment are hard to detect because of the challenges of aggregating case studies and because of other changes in the political economy of Mexico and the border region, I will argue that the effects of NAFTA are both materially and discursively far more differentiated than anticipated and seem to include some positive outcomes for people and ecosystems.

Gallagher, K.P. 2004. Free Trade and the Environment: Mexico, NAFTA , and Beyond. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. Liverman, D.; R. Varady; O. Chavez; and R. Sanchez. 1999. Environmental Issues along the US Mexico border: Drivers of Change and Responses of Citizens and Institutions. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 24:607-643. Liverman, D.M. and S. Vilas. 2006. Neoliberalism and the Environment in Latin America. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 31:327-363. Robbins, P. 2011. Political ecology: A critical introduction. John Wiley & Sons. Vilas-Ghiso, S. and D. Liverman. 2007. Scale, technique and composition effects in the Mexican agricultural sector: the influence of NAFTA and the institutional environment. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 7:137-169.

This talk is part of the Department of Geography - main Departmental seminar series series.

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