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U. academics meet to discuss trade accord

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As police and protesters Friday clashed outside the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City with tear gas and stones, a diverse group of University of Utah academics engaged in a battle of ideas.

Professors from the law school and sociology, political science, economics and biology departments met to voice their opinions on the "Free Trade Area of the Americas" agreement.

The agreement, which would create the world's largest "free" trade area (encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere, excluding Cuba), has been in the works since the first Summit of the Americas in 1994. The 34 participating nations have a preliminary draft agreement in hand this week, though there are still significant sticking points.

Many were raised during Friday's panel discussion. Theresa Martnez, associate professor of sociology, compared FTAA to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which she said exploited the poor to benefit governments and multinational corporations.

"Substandard working conditions, substandard living conditions, substandard pay and sexual harassment — this is what NAFTA has brought to Mexico," Martnez said. "NAFTA, in my opinion, has done nothing to support a world without borders. . . . We allow the transfer of goods and services between countries, but we do not allow the transfer of people, regardless of their need."

Biology professor Dinah Davidson said she was concerned that the FTAA did not adequately address the needs of the environment. The result, Davidson said, would be the degradation of natural resources for profit and suffering by the most-vulnerable.

"There will be pressure on developing countries to provide products for export, which can come at the expense of providing food for its people," Davidson said.

Though each of the panelists expressed some concern about the trade provisions outlined in the draft agreement, associate professor of economics Stephen Reynolds said there also may be benefits.

"There are 189 million people living on the equivalent of $2 per day. More than issues of free trade or freer trade . . . (is) poverty," Reynolds said. "Free trade, I would argue, is one of the things that can inspire economic growth and reduce poverty."

Scott Fife, an onlooker and self-described "outside agitator," disagreed.

"I think free trade is a misnomer," Fife said. "What this is is the corporatization, liberalization and privatization of the economy as a whole."

Fife took issue with the "imposition of a lifestyle" he said President Bush advocated in remarks to the media before the summit.

"There are millions of people who have sustainable lifestyles, who are forced to go into the cities to work," he said. "And in the city, they're basically slaves."

Paul Arnold, a U. senior in philosophy and economics, said that while he shared the panelists' concerns, he believed leaders should keep working on an agreement.

"We have to determine how we're going to harmonize our trade and environmental policies, and figure out whose policies should be enacted," Arnold said.

"I think we should proceed with caution," he said. "But I think we should proceed."

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com