To discuss International Trade and Environment is a paradoxical but complementary task.
While environmental issues are constantly being passed over to the detriment of large trade flows among countries, the more the world needs food from unsustainable technologies, which are cheaper to produce, to feed families worldwide. On the other hand, the international community is more aware of its actions and it attempts, through the implementation of standards, to create a fairer trade apparatus among countries and consequently their direct relationship with the environment.
The interconnection between Environment and International Trade can be observed from ancient times, such as in the fifteenth and in the sixteenth centuries, during the exploitation of natural resources from central countries in their respective colonies, when all the raw material was sold generating high profits for these core countries. In the Brazilian case, the exploration of pau-Brasil and henceforth sugar cane was a rather important aid to the constitution of the Portuguese Empire as a great world power of that time. Besides the exploitation of commodities, the world has seen the depletion of non-renewable resources, like coal and oil, in favor of European Industrial Revolutions, more specifically those of England, which had as main objectives to develop national industries and exchange high added value products to the world.
In the 1960s, with the Biosphere Conference, in Paris, the world begins to realize that resources are finite and that there is indivisibility and interdependence between man and nature. It is after this first international reaction that countries began to discuss in a more energetic way the environmental theme.
The term eco-development is coined by Maurice Strong, as a result of the 1972 Conference on Human Development, in Stockholm. For him, the long-term development would only be achieved if the environmental problems at that time were solved. The world was then divided between the more and the less developed countries, which had contrasting national interests, such as development. Issues that are observed currently it actually started to rise by then: while some want to maintain their natural resources (developed countries), others need it to develop themselves (developing countries), since the exploitation of resources was needed for national development. This is the beginning of the developmental dilemma between actors belonging to opposite ends of the international society.
Concurrently with the conference focused on environmental issues, there is the regulation of international trade. In 1947, a set of rules and principles of international trade are compiled in a general agreement called GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs). The general agreement was essential for international trade, making it fairer and more transparent, replicating the basic principles for all countries of the world as is the case of Art. 24 regarding the principle of most favored nation (if a country offers preference to another, it is obliged to extend the same benefits to all, demonstrating no exclusivity). GATT is still used as the general agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Other elements were incorporated into this agreement as the ones concerning services (GATS), intellectual property (TRIPS) and investment (TRIMS). One can notice that free trade becomes the rule of international trade among countries, whose regulation occurs in the scope of the World Trade Organization.
The WTO is a truly competent body in various branches of international trade, yet it still lacks clarity on certain issues, such as those related to the environment. Agricultural subsidies are still reality in the European Union and in the United States, whose practices end up passing over small farmers of less developed or developing countries, leaving the world increasingly unequal. Sanitary and phytosanitary measures, although prohibited in the Marrakech Agreement (1994), are still practiced by central countries, which use them without any arguments grounded in today’s reality neither based on consistent criteria.
On the other hand, discussions are being held about sustainable trade based on ISO 14000 standards, which are good alternatives for incorporating environmental concerns in international trade. To talk about standardized norms is a weak but an important first step, so that it is possible to give a final end to environmental degradation.
To follow international standards can be quite expensive for a less developed country, so it is believed that the Fair Trade should be increasingly discussed and practiced by the international organizations such as the WTO itself. The third sector is the most active in the dissipation of this practice, in which several NGOs assist small farmers and micro-entrepreneurs to sell their products, which are manufactured in a sustainable manner and without the use of slave labor.
Environment and International Trade are therefore paradoxical but complementary subjects. The trade of commodities in the world depends on the exchange of goods between countries, based on the comparative advantages so to achieve good profits. By focusing on profits, environmental devastation ends up being replicated in order to obtain even greater profits.
The regulation of trade tends not always to the benefit of the weaker, much less to the preservation of the environment. Small producers are harmed by agricultural subsidies and sanitary and phytosanitary barriers conducted by developed countries, making the world increasingly uneven and poor in natural resources. Actions as favoring fair trade and the creation of consistent norms for all producers must be dissipated in the scope of international trade, so that the world becomes even more sustainable and symmetrical. Dialogue, cooperation and some altruism must be practiced to preserve the world in which we all live in.
First published on IA-Forum website