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Civil society participation in trade policy-making in Latin America

Civil society participation in trade policy-making in Latin America: The Case of the Environmental Movement

In recent years, and particularly perhaps since the ‘battle of Seattle’ in 1999, the issue of civil society participation in trade policy has attracted increasing policy and academic attention. Much of this attention has been drawn to the question of institutional access and channels of participation and representation within the WTO. The challenge is one that has faced other global institutions such as the World Bank and IMF for a number of years (O’Brien et al 2000).

Improving the transparency of and access to decision-making in the context of up-scaling civil society participation is not exclusively a global challenge, however. There has been a great deal of activity at the regional level around trade negotiations and increasingly in Latin America with the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) following in the wake of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur). Few institutional reforms have been brought about without significant pressure from civil society, however. Some challenges are common to all movements attempting to participate and make their voice heard in the sensitive and traditionally closed arena of trade negotiations. But others are unique, and reflect distinct regional political histories, previous experiences of mobilisation and prevailing social and material realities. Given this, it becomes important to understand what can be learned from the experience of a globally significant region like Latin America about the possibilities and limitations of civil society participation in trade policy.

By comparing the documented experiences of NAFTA with analysis of Mercosur and the evolving FTAA negotiations, in terms of the participation of the environmental movements, important insights may be gained about: who is participating in trade policy, how and with what effect and, equally importantly, who is not participating and what are the implications of this?

The analysis will therefore attempt to identify key factors which shape these dynamics. These include;

  • key strategic issues within the movements and among groups themselves (diversity of strategies, politics of coalition-building, patterns of influence and engagement/non-engagement)
  • the organisation of institutional access (rights, representation, process, decision-making)
  • key economic and political regional dynamics which affect each of the above (differences between and within individual countries regarding key issues and attitudes towards participation)

By comparing across different sets of trade negotiations and institutional arrangements it will be possible to identify what the key drivers and shapers of change appear to be. In other words, the extent to which these appear to derive from the nature of the institution or process itself, the strategies of the movement engaging with it, or more likely still, some combination of both these elements. The challenge is to account for diverse forms of engagement and non-engagement and, more importantly, to derive lessons from them about the possibility of constructing more effective, sustainable and transparent mechanisms of participation and representation in trade policy based on experiences to date in Latin America.