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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder2. Global trends and their effects on the environment
View the documentThe information revolution
View the documentDevelopment of global financial markets
View the documentDevelopment of more effective transportation networks
View the documentMovement of people
View the documentGlobalization and the unequal distribution of wealth
View the documentInternational migration
View the documentThe development of free markets

The information revolution

The end of the 20th century is characterized by a profound technological revolution that has profound effects on the environment and the socioeconomic state of the world. It has been referred to as the “information age,” the “third wave” (Toffler 1981), and the “post-industrial society” (Bell 1973). I believe the term “information revolution” is more appropriate.

The two major phenomena promoting this revolution are the development and increasing use of computers, which make possible the storage and processing of large volumes of information, and new telecommunications technologies, which permit the transmission of this information over long distances almost instantaneously. This technology is being integrated to produce powerful tools and systems, increasing by several orders of magnitude humankind’s capacity for collective memory and providing a worldwide arena for social interaction. In addition, these systems have become inexpensive, require a small amount of energy and human effort to use, and are becoming more accessible to more and more people all over the world.

The information-telecommunications revolution is generating a “global intelligence” - a computerized neural network with increasing numbers of information producers and users. The producers are not only the public and private institutionalized information packaging and delivery systems, but also scores of smaller groups and individuals with computer terminals and the will to be connected to networks. Consequently, billions of bytes of information are being exchanged every minute among information producers, relay stations, and users and receivers of various kinds.

Along with these advances, and in large measure as a result of them, accessory facilities for production and reproduction of information and ideas, such as photocopiers, home printers, and faxes, have become widely available. Using these resources, many more social groups are now able, even at the local level, to express themselves in new and complex ways - electronic bulletin boards, community newspapers, and local cable television channels. At the national level, too, media are developing locally customized views.

General effects of the information revolution

The global networks provide wider public access to more sources of information than ever before, not only from central information streams, but also from myriad local sources. The possibilities for interaction are multiplying accordingly. Many social contacts are becoming independent of distance, giving rise to a new spectrum of relations that were not previously possible. Internet, the worldwide computer network, currently links more than 20 million users and is growing at a rate of 20% per month! It was built in an extremely democratic fashion, following the basic principles of decentralization, unlimited and total access, and freedom of information (see Elmer-Dewitt 1994). Although it is not yet clear if the Internet will remain a central element of the information age over the long term, it definitely appears that it will continue to play a key role in the development of new social tools of communication for some time to come.

One overall effect of the information revolution appears to be a general democratization of information flow, both at the producer and at the receiver ends, with loss of power by the monopolistic information holders. The increasing availability of knowledge, technical and nontechnical, about how to get things done is particularly important. We assume (and hope) that information networks will remain free of control or censorship by any existing or newly created “information power” as has often been the case in the past.’ Keeping them open is going to be a ongoing global challenge.

The information revolution will probably also result in increasing diversification of expressed points of view and approaches. This diversification effect is critical. In fact, it may be the most effective antidote to the forces of uniformity that are coming into play in the globalized world.

The complex processes of globalization have promoted the development of a mainstream standardized culture that includes not only widespread homogenization of production and consumption systems and patterns, but also greater cultural uniformity, including expression codes, attitudes, and beliefs. The new trend toward diversification and differentiation is building on the flow of information that allows freer expression of alternative perspectives, including those of social minorities and disadvantaged groups who are finding relevant and accessible channels for expressing their opinions and disseminating information.

The creation of new methods for public participation is producing an immense potential for the generation and use of knowledge and innovation at the grass-roots level. Many traditions that had been eliminated, forgotten, or discredited by mainstream culture may now be revived. Traditional knowledge can be rescued, revived, adapted, and sustained.

The more marginalized aspects of complex cultures, often intentionally or by omission wiped out by the forces of standardization, may also stand a chance of survival if enough of their representatives are determined to use these newly developing mechanisms. In all likelihood, meso- and microcultures (as well as subcultures) will survive at a different level than the mainstream culture. The future coexistence of several cultures, on different planes or levels, will likely become more common and important. Smaller, usually weaker cultures should be able to transcend their limited spheres, however, to claim more extended “virtual” territories. People will be able to belong to a specific culture without abandoning their rights as part of the wider standard culture.

The potential of this development is enormous. People will be able to become more homogeneous on one level, but increasingly heterogeneous on another. Meso- and microcultures and nations will no longer disappear under the shadow of a mainstream culture. The industrial nation-state that has arisen through the smothering of less powerful national or local groups will lose its main source of power. Unavoidably, this will lead to fragmentation of power and perhaps instability; but it will surely lead to more and different forms of democratization as well.

Effects on environmental management

Processes that degrade the environment have often developed as a result of central decisions based on the views of powerful groups about how to control or use natural (and human) resources and territory.

Typically the centralized industrial states of the world, local groups are among the least powerful; their environments and cultures are often undermined or destroyed without their being able to do anything about it. The reigning ideology tends to equate almost any transformation of nature with progress and progress with modernization, and assumes that both are desirable. In consequence, local communities must often choose between their immediate convenience, on the one hand, and their long-term welfare, on the other. To make matters worse, they have little accurate information about the potential long-term effects of proposed natural and sociocultural transformations.

Even where communities do not agree with proposed measures, they often have few effective channels through which to communicate their views. The right of communities to define their own destinies has not been properly acknowledged in practice, even when present in policy. In most cases, national decision-makers do not wish to change this situation.

Circumstances may now be changing, however, and, in some cases, radically. Development paradigms are being reexamined, probably because of negative experiences throughout the world and changes in mainstream culture as a result of the early effects of the information revolution. New and alternative approaches are now being considered, typically under the rubric of “sustainable development.”

The information revolution is opening many new channels of communication to local groups in, among other things, the field of environmental management. People are becoming more involved in their communities, better informed about options, and more determined to have a say in their future - be it in devising new development models at the local level, formulating policies on local issues, or advocating decisions at the central level about issues affecting them.

Because of the wide proliferation of more, and more diverse, information, environmental management can no longer be considered the reserve of a few. Now, if authorities want to engage in environmentally unfriendly actions in communities, they must often first convince ombudsmen, local groups, senior citizens, schoolchildren, and women and men of all professions of the positive impact of their projects. In addition, more people are acquiring the means to propose their own solutions, based on both their own traditional and empirical knowledge, which is gradually becoming properly validated, and the scientific and technological knowledge that is becoming increasingly available to all.

Development of global financial markets

Times have changed since wealth was measured in terms of salt, corn, or gold coins. Even paper money is losing value as the nearly 200 million Visa credit cards accepted in 6.5 million stores throughout the world are used to transact about $650 million in business every day (Toffler 1990, p. 61). Including other credit cards, the figure is five times this amount. In addition, a huge number of transactions are carried out using cheques, shares, money orders, and so on. As a result of the information revolution, a growing volume of financial operations is carried out with “electronic money.” The trend is clearly toward more widespread substitution of paper-based transactions with electronic operations.

The development of this “virtual” framework has made international monetary systems more volatile; financial and commercial transactions can be carried out at a speed that is changing the rhythm of political and economic events. Financial decisions are made at a moment’s notice, at any hour of the day or night. Global markets never close. Effects are almost instantaneous. When a major financial operation takes place or an economic policy announced, repercussions can be felt throughout the world in a matter of minutes.

A further consequence of the information-based management of money has been the internationalization of money markets and a subsequent blurring of financial borders. There are increasing ties between currencies and national governments are experiencing greater difficulty in defining autonomous policies.

Somewhat paradoxically, however, financial trends are developing “on their own.” It is becoming increasingly difficult to control markets, as many more people, acting on their own, are making many more decisions over short periods of time. Central banks are having problems ensuring the stability of national currencies or the behaviour of other financial parameters.

This situation is exacerbated by the similarly widespread automation of markets and the development of new, early forecasting programs. There are “a dozen firms...managing more than 100 million dollars [US] each on the basis of advice generated by computers” (Economist 1993a, p. 3). Growing numbers of mathematicians and computer experts are dedicated to predicting market trends by computerized nonlinear forecasting and other tools that increase the speed and accuracy of financial decisions. The effects of this practice are not yet wholly understood, but they are already playing a role in the globalization trend and in liberating at least some aspects of the financial market from monopolistic control.

Development of more effective transportation networks

Although to a much lesser degree than the flow of information, the transportation of merchandise has been deeply affected by postindustrial changes. The internationalization of air traffic allows for the rapid transportation of a wide range of lightweight, high-value, perishable, or time-sensitive merchandise, such as electronic equipment and parts, food, flowers, and newsprint. The movement of freight by sea has also become more efficient with the development of computerized shipping and the associated improvement of commercial systems, faster ships, and modular packaging. The effectiveness and safety of shipping has been improved considerably by the worldwide adoption of container systems, which reduce the risk of theft and spoilage and significantly accelerate the loading and unloading of goods.

These improvements have promoted the growth of trade worldwide by reducing shipping costs and facilitating redistribution of production. Production occurs more and more often at the most “convenient” place, that is, the most economic, simplest, and safest site available. This is making it more difficult for governments and lobby groups to retain industries or other economic activities artificially in noneconomic situations.

The “lubrication” of merchandise transport systems is also playing a role in the uniformity-diversity dichotomy. On the one hand, there is movement toward uniformity, through stricter and more widespread application of standards, specifications, and quality control. On the other hand, container systems permit the movement of diverse products within a highly standardized system. As with information, the final result will likely display both characteristics.

Movement of people

Another element in this changing world is the increased speed, volume, and accessibility of transportation for people, mainly by air travel. At any moment, throughout the world, several thousand planes are in the air, transporting tens if not hundreds of thousands of people over hundreds or thousands of kilometres. In addition, ground transportation (by automobile, bus, or train) has also become much more flexible, accessible, and rapid, increasing severalfold the number of kilometres that people travel during their lives.

The effects of this increase in travel are felt in many ways. First, there has been phenomenal growth in the tourist industry. Many countries receive over 10 million visitors annually (mainly tourists); in some popular tourist destinations, such as Spain, Italy, the United States, and Mexico, the number of visitors can surpass 30 or 40 million per year. Second, business travel has similarly increased. Business dealings are carried out more frequently and effectively by complementing telecommunications with face-to-face contact. Third, previously difficult international and national social contacts are now becoming commonplace. Thousands of international or interstate sports competitions, conferences, and other events are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Last, but not least, the ease of international travel has increased the flow of international migrants. The main emigration routes, over which people are driven by social, economic, and political situations and events, have been made more accessible by better transportation.

This increase in the transnational flow of people is a major factor in globalization. Visitors interact in many ways with their host countries, exchanging money, purchasing products, influencing (and being influenced by) culture. Migrants interact still more. They affect local job markets, they experience and produce cultural changes, and they mix socially and genetically. The result is an unprecedented mixture of cultures and groups, with the subsequent acquisition or loss of knowledge, changes in outlook, more rapid evolution of processes, behaviour, and attitudes.

Like other global trends, increased travel has produced uniformity, while also fostering diversity. The two processes are taking place simultaneously, although probably at different levels of social systems and consciousness.

Globalization and the unequal distribution of wealth

As described above, globalization is resulting in less differentiation among many aspects of society and life. At the same time, a rebirth of diversification is being promoted by the democratization of information through the expansion of electronic networks and the increasing number of channels of communication. Some important elements in both national and international spheres, however, do not seem to be profiting from either trend. Instead, these processes lead to the unequal distribution of resources, products, and access to money among much of the world’s population. International economic disparities do not appear to be decreasing as a result of recent developments; on the contrary, they seem to be growing.

Table 1. The human development index (HDI): 10 highest and 10 lowest.


























United States






United Kingdom





















Sierra Leone






Burkina Faso





Source: UNDP (1994). demonstrates the abysmal gap that exists between the richest and poorest countries in terms of quality of life.

People in developed countries are better fed and live in a healthier, less contaminated environment, with fewer infectious diseases. Therefore, they are sick much less frequently; in addition, these relatively healthy people have easier access to a much more efficient health-care system containing the best human resources, expensive medicine, and sophisticated equipment for diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.

The average person in a poor country often works long hours in an unhealthy environment, in a confined space, and in an uncomfortable position; breathes toxic substances; is faced with long trips on crowded buses or trains; and must support a large family on an insufficient salary. In addition, he or she frequently lives in a degraded environment, where there is a high risk of natural catastrophes, such as landslides or floods.

The average person in a rich country has more free time and more options for using it. He or she can take up a sport or other exercise and has access to a range of health products that allow him or her to maintain a healthy life-style. A person in a poor country has little free time; he or she has an unbalanced diet and less resistance to disease. Often, living in high-density areas where appropriate hygiene may be difficult or impossible, the poor are faced with a much higher prevalence of infectious diseases.

To be objective, we must recognize that these situations and evaluations do not apply to all social sectors in rich and poor countries. There are poor sectors in rich countries and very rich sectors in poor countries. The standard of living of the upper classes in some poor countries may seem sumptuous, even compared with that of the average person in developed countries. However, a huge gap exists between the two worlds that appears to be increasing daily.

There are several reasons for the increase. First, the populations of poor countries are growing much faster than those in rich countries, making it increasingly more difficult to provide employment and services for all. Second, the environment of poor countries is being degraded faster and, as a result, their production base is shrinking. Third, poor countries are losing their best human resources to the North. Finally, goods and wealth produced in poor countries are being systematically transferred to the rich through export of capital; payment of royalties, profits, loans, and interest; deterioration of the terms of exchange; and processes of cultural alienation that are promoting unnecessary and frivolous types of consumption, again favouring the transfer of money and resources from the poor to the rich.

Effects of international disparities on the environment

The huge differences separating the rich and poor populations of the world are having an unmistakable effect on the environment at all levels. Poverty is a prime cause of many of the world’s serious environmental problems. In most countries, the urban poor must survive in crowded conditions, without appropriate sanitation and waste-disposal services. As a result, poor neighbourhoods are becoming a major cause of water and soil degradation, both in their immediate areas and “downslope” or downstream. In some countries, landless rural poor are forced to move into inappropriate locations, cutting and burning trees to clear land for subsistence farming or raising cattle, or excavating the soil and sediments to extract the minerals that allow them to survive.

A large part of environmental degradation, including desertification, erosion, and contamination processes, is the direct result of the efforts of poor people to make a living - often, simply to survive. The issue, however, is not why these people are harming the environment and how they can change their behaviour; the real issue is why they are in a situation where this is their only recourse.

Not all environmental problems are the result of poverty. Many (perhaps the most acute and wide-ranging problems) result from economic affluence and indiscriminate consumption. Wealthy countries are responsible for burning most of the world’s nonrenewable fuel. They produce the largest volumes of solid and liquid wastes, produce enormous volumes of unnatural gaseous emissions, possess the largest deprecatory fishing fleets, and consume most of the goods produced in environmentally unfriendly ways in the poorer countries. Finally, through the promotion of export-driven economics in developing countries, the wealthy nations force these countries into positions in which environmental degradation becomes unavoidable.

There is a strong relation between the inequitable social structure of the world and the main processes of environmental degradation that are taking place across the planet. A sustainable approach to environmental management must address the paramount need to restructure the distribution of wealth among countries and among people. Harmonization of production-consumption and the more equitable distribution of wealth are preconditions for sustainable environmental management.

International migration

Differences in quality of life are increasing in an epoch of intense globalization of communications and transport. As a result, for the first time in history, most inhabitants of poorer countries have become aware that people in other places live not only differently, but much better.

Third World people, representing 80% of the world’s population, increasingly want to emigrate to the developed world. Salvadoreans, Nicaraguans, Peruvians, and many other Latin American people dream of emigrating to the United States and Canada. Thousands of North Africans would like to move to France, Belgium, and Switzerland. Many Indians and Pakistanis would like to emigrate to Britain or Saudi Arabia.

Each year, several million people attempt to fulfill this wish, and a considerable number succeed. They use the most varied and imaginative methods. Some cross a desert or river; others cross larger bodies of water in small boats. Still others try their luck by legal means, hoping to be included in the quotas of Canada or the United States, or through agreements between governments. Professional people and entrepreneurs have an advantage. Those who possess special expertise or belong to the qualified professions are accepted with relative ease.

One result of these migratory fluxes is the development of stricter policies and strategies by the rich countries to prevent uncontrolled arrivals. Careful controls, visa requirements, and financial guarantees are all geared toward closing borders. Despite these measures, however, migratory pressure is so great that large numbers manage to squeeze through or around the various “filters,” and settle in the targeted countries where their situation is often secured after several years through one of the periodic amnesties, which, in a way, are a recognition of the impotence of the police and immigration systems in preventing people from escaping living conditions in the South.

Currently, the main recipient countries for immigrants are the largest and least densely populated: the United States, Canada, and Australia. These three countries absorb about 1.5 million immigrants every year, that is, approximately half of the total migration to developed countries.

Immigration to the United States

The United States alone receives more than 1 million immigrants a year. California, the richest and most populated state in the country, increased its population from less than 26 million in 1980 to the current 31.5 million. Foreign immigration accounted for about 40% of the increase (Appleby 1993). In the area of San Diego alone, legal immigrants constitute more than half the population, and it is estimated that there are 200 thousand illegal immigrants in the population of 2 million. Similar situations are found in other southern US cities, such as Houston, Los Angeles, and San Antonio.

A significant segment of the immigrant population ends up in the sector of American society living in poverty. The shantytowns of San Diego are typical poor neighbourhoods, composed of recent, mainly illegal immigrants. The Los Diablos slum in San Diego County is “a wasteland of rusting cars and makeshift housing, an acreage owned by the city and squatted on for many years” (Appleby 1993). These squatters work at small construction projects or pick tomatoes and cucumbers for below-minimum wages; they earn about $3 per hour, compared with the minimum wage of $4.50 per hour (in Mexico, however, the same work pays one-tenth that amount). Squatter camps like Los Diablos can be found throughout southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida in the inner cities or suburbs of many large metropolitan areas. In some ways, they represent the Third World inside the developed world.

In 1992, over 1 million people immigrated to the United States, of which 841 thousand were classified as “legal” (Business Week 1992). Almost half were from Latin America, with 23% coming from Mexico, the country “sending” the most migrants to its northern neighbours. Of the remainder, 13.1% came from the Caribbean and 11.1% came from Central and South America.

More than a third (35.2%) of the remaining legal immigrants came from Asia. During recent years there has been an increase in immigration from eastern Europe, which previously had not exceeded 8%, and a relatively small amount of immigration from Africa (about 2%).

These legal immigrants include a considerable number of people with high levels of education: 26.6% have university degrees, although in their own countries people with degrees make up only a small percentage of the population. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “brain drain.” It tends to accentuate North-South disparities, strengthening human resources in countries with well-developed capacities and reducing the already weak professional base of poorer countries. The countries of origin of migrants with the highest education are India (average schooling, 15 years), Philippines (14 years), and Korea (13 years). The lowest level of education is found in Mexican immigrants (7 years).

Not only do these immigrants possess relatively high levels of education, they are also often trained and experienced in highly specialized occupations. For example, 40% of AT&T’s researchers were born outside the United States (Business Week 1992). A similar proportion of the professionals in the Silicon Valley are also immigrants. According to Business Week, the next generation of engineers in highly sophisticated US companies will be dominated by immigrants.

While these immigration trends continue, there is evidence of a change in the types of jobs available in the United States. As the country moves toward a postindustrial, third-wave society and redistribution of its global productive roles, a large number of labour-intensive production activities are being transferred to less-developed countries like Mexico. Many jobs that were once performed by immigrants or unspecialized American workers have disappeared, a situation that is affecting the segment of the American work force that depends on these jobs for its survival.

One frequently hears that it is the continuous influx of immigrants that is creating job scarcity. Although research has shown that immigrants create more jobs than they take, their presence can contribute to the level of frustration in society. There is widespread feeling among American citizens that, to solve the unemployment problem, immigration must be stopped or drastically reduced. In some areas, however, the lack of inexpensive immigrant labour may promote the transfer of many jobs to sites in Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, or other countries, including some jobs now performed by American workers.

Immigration to other developed countries

The population density in Canada and Australia is less than 3 people per square kilometre. Immigration to Canada has ranged from 100 to 200 thousand people a year over the last few years. Australia has accepted slightly fewer people than Canada.

Lately, a large proportion of Canadian immigrants have come from Asia (especially those in Vancouver, Toronto, and other large cities), eastern Europe, and, to a lesser degree, the Middle East and Latin America. As a result of the recent war in Somalia, many citizens from this country have also come to Canada, many of them as refugees.

In Australia, the immigrant population includes a considerable number of people from neighbouring Far Eastern countries (China, India, Indonesia, Melanesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Polynesia, and Vietnam), as well as eastern Europe.

In Europe, immigration patterns are closely related to the affiliations of former Third World colonies. France and Belgium have received many immigrants from the Francophone countries of Africa (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia); the United Kingdom is the destination of Indians and Pakistanis; Holland of Indonesians; Portugal of people from Angola, Cape Verde Islands, Guinea, and Mozambique; and Spain of Spanish-Americans, Moroccans, and other Africans.

The southern coast of Spain, in Andalucia near Tarifa, is the destination of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who cross the Strait of Gibraltar in pateras. Moroccans, Mauritanians, Senegalese, and other Africans from south of the Sahara cross the strait with the help of pasadores or lobos. Once they reach Spain, some manage to move into other countries, such as France and Germany, but many remain on the Iberian Peninsula.

In Europe, African and Asian workers are a source of inexpensive labour for jobs not attractive to nationals. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for some of the richer European countries to do without their work. In addition to the large number of immigrants with low professional qualifications, Europe receives a significant number of immigrants with higher qualifications (generally through legal or semilegal channels), arriving as students, invited professors, professionals, and qualified technicians.

A portion of the earnings of immigrants is transferred to their countries of origin. For example, it is estimated that Morocco receives over $1 billion as a result of these remittances (El Pais 1992). Similar figures have been reported for Algeria, Tunisia, and, to a lesser degree, sub-Saharan countries.

As in North America, a significant sector of the immigrant population has a high level of education, strengthening the knowledge base of European countries, while reducing such resources in the countries of origin. Third World countries spend their limited financial resources training their professionals, only to have the few well-trained people who complete their studies quickly absorbed by the much richer North.

The development of free markets

Immediately after the Second World War, the main political powers began negotiations to reduce tariffs and duties worldwide, giving birth to GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). With the participation of 23 countries, this agreement was concluded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1947, and took effect in 1948.

At that time, the objective was to approve an interim agreement until an international agency could assume responsibility for coordination and management of international trade relations. However, such an agency was never formed and GATT remains the principal tool for liberalizing world trade. Since its inception, GATT has expanded to include more than 100 countries by the early 1990s.

An attempt to liberalize regional trade took place in western Europe after 1958 when the European Common Market was formed by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. This trading bloc, now know as the European Community (EC), grew further to include Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom (1973), Greece (1981), and Spain and Portugal (1986). By 1993, other European countries were negotiating entry and, before the end of the century, it is likely that the remaining Scandinavian countries (Finland, Norway, and Sweden) and Austria will join. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, and Slovenia are also interested, although their incorporation will probably not occur before the year 2000.

The EC countries trade mainly with their economic partners (78% of the Netherlands’ exports remain in the EC; Belgium and Luxembourg, 75%; Ireland, 75%; Portugal, 74%; Spain, 71%; France, 62%; Italy, 59%; United Kingdom, 55%; Germany, 53%). Most of the remaining commerce is directed to North America and the Far East. The role of Third World countries in European commerce is less important.

Starting in 1988, a second major commercial bloc was formed in North America when the United States and Canada negotiated a free trade agreement. In 1993, an agreement was reached between these two countries and Mexico to ensure its integration into the process through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The formalization of this treaty has generated strong opposition from some sectors of both the Canadian and the American public who believe that opening the borders will release a flood of companies moving south to Mexico in search of a less-expensive environment, while posing the risk of increased immigration to the United States and Canada.

A recent article (Economist 1993b) expressed the view of many who think that there may be exactly the opposite effect. It cites the case of a General Motors plant planning to move a large portion of the production of Cavalier vehicles from Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, to Lansing, Michigan. According to the article, Mexican labour costs are only 35% lower than those in the United States and 40% lower than Canada’s, when average wages are adjusted for benefits and lower productivity. The effect of NAFTA may thus be less pronounced than feared by those who oppose it.

Following a proposal of then President of the United States, George Bush (the 1990 “Initiative for the Americas”), other Latin American countries are also making progress toward similar agreements. The most important regional block is the MERCOSUR, comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, complemented by the Central American Free Market (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador) and the Andean Group (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela). Chile and Peru have not joined any of these liberalization initiatives.

Since the 1960s, attempts have been made to create a Latin American free market - after the formation of the Asociacion Latino-Americana de Libre Comercio, which became Asociacion Latino-Americana de Integration (ALADI) after the treaty of Montevideo. ALADI’s role has been mainly to provide an institutional framework for regional agreements dealing with integration processes, including trade liberalization.

Recent GATT negotiations took place in this environment of globalization. Many difficulties were encountered during the “Uruguay round,” particularly because of the insistence of some EC countries on maintaining certain farming subsidies. The document resulting from the Uruguay round of GATT was approved and signed by the 117 member countries on 15 December 1993 in Geneva, Switzerland. Although the final agreement was not as wide ranging as expected, tariffs will decrease by an average 40%. The relatively successful conclusion of this agreement shows that the world continues to move toward globalization and that, although international commerce is complex, the barriers that used to prevent the development of open trade relations are gradually being dismantled.

Complexities of international commerce and their effects on globalization

Evidence from recent history shows that globalization processes are unstoppable because they tend to feed on each other. Current globalization trends are based on a framework of unidirectional openings (liberal approaches in developing countries, continued protectionism in developed economies). It is an internationalization controlled from the financial decision-making centres in the North.

Farming systems in the United States and the EC remain supported by direct and indirect subsidies. In Europe, this is viewed by some as overt protectionism; in the United States, the subsidies are more indirect - for example, subsidized water for irrigated agriculture in California and other western states.

Third World countries, on the other hand, pressured by the need to service large debts and conditioned by liberalizing programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lending agencies, have been drawn into export-promotion campaigns. These have forced them to accept unfavourable terms of exchange because of import quotas, used as instruments of political pressure, or in relation to refinancing the foreign debt.

The desperate need to export, coupled with the necessity of creating new sources of employment, has compelled many developing countries to be less selective in their acceptance of new industries transferred from developed countries, including the rapidly spreading maquiladoras, which generally use production systems that are not only highly exploitive of the work force, detrimental to health, and environmentally unfriendly, but also teach workers almost nothing that can be applied elsewhere (see Chapter 1 for a detailed description).

Economic globalization and environmental degradation

Economic globalization and liberalization of trade are having a strong impact on the environment at local, regional, and global levels. Whenever trade barriers are lowered or eliminated, many economic activities that had previously been carried out under their protection also tend to disappear, often to relocate in other areas where economic survival is easier.

Generally, the dominant factor in competitive production is cost. Developed countries must compensate for their high labour, tax, and environmental costs through more productive technologies, higher production levels, and more efficient management strategies. Despite the high costs, there are clear advantages to producing certain goods in developed countries: well-organized and efficient infrastructures, high capacity of existing human resources, better quality control, and proximity to markets. However, a number of productive activities in developed countries would not be able to survive for long without the shields of protectionist trade barriers and subsidies.

Because globalization processes tend to remove these barriers, many productive activities traditionally associated with developed economies are gradually being transferred to developing countries. In some cases, this happens through partial transfer of some operations in the productive chain, such as assembly or production of parts for industrial use. Such transferred operations can be carried out at a lower cost at the receiving site because of lower labour and environmental costs.

Normally, this transfer involves agreements between the countries to allow productive complementarily. In most cases, the transferring country charges duty only on the value added in the host country, and the host country opens “free zones” to allow entry and exit of raw materials and merchandise with minimal or no import-export duty. These industries are called maquiladoras and are common in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, and, with slight modifications, in some countries of East Asia and North Africa.

Often, when the whole economic activity becomes uneconomical in the developed country, the entire productive process can be transferred to the partner country. Many metallurgical, textile, and electronics industries, among others, have been transferred in this way. Similar arrangements are being made in relation to agricultural activities (some Californian crops have been transferred to Brazil, Chile, and Mexico), forestry (the Canadian forest industry is having trouble competing with counterparts in Brazil and Chile), and aquaculture (shrimp farms have been established in Ecuador and the Philippines).

This global restructuring of production is having a profound effect on the environment. Most of the industries or activities moving to developing countries have some potential for environmental degradation. A considerable number of them produce toxic wastes or emissions that can introduce negative elements into water, air, or soils. When these industries or activities are located in developed countries, a long social learning process has contributed to the development of a set of environmental laws to address, more or less efficiently, their potentially hazardous effects. Developed countries have preventive and reactive systems, including technical solutions to environmental degradation, policies and rules for that purpose, definitions of responsibility and accountability, and appropriate institutions, to deal with environmental problems. Many developing countries lack these systems. Some laws may exist, but they are poorly applied (if at all). Recently, progress has been made in several countries, but it is insufficient to prevent serious environmental degradation.

Thus, the restructuring of production appears to be threatening the environment at local, national, regional, and global levels. For example, acid rain, which was once common only in northeastern North America and western Europe, has become a serious issue in several Third World countries, including Brazil, China, and India. Industrial procedures to check environmental degradation are often bypassed as industries relocate to Third World countries where such requirements do not apply or can be circumvented. New irrigated-farming projects in developing countries are using water at a rate well above the renewability potential of aquifers or surface water bodies. Farming and neoforestry activities are being carried out on land from which rich and diverse native forests have been eliminated.

The balance is systematically negative: less care is exercised or responsibility taken; fewer resources are applied to environmental protection; soil is eroded) aquifers, streams, lakes, and coastal waters are contaminated; forests are disappearing; exotic species are introduced without consideration of their ecological effects; and the atmosphere is polluted. Any long-term approach to environmentally sustainable development must consider these effects of globalization. The problems must be addressed before they become impossible or too expensive to reverse.