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From Canada to Mexico

Group founded at U of M studies the effects of international free trade.

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In the past 11 years, hundreds of women have been murdered, raped, or abducted on their way home from work in Mexican piecework factories and technical training schools. Some people blame the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was passed in 1994 and caused an upsurge in low-wage piecework labor, done mostly by women.

While NAFTA is only one factor in the deaths and assaults, it's situations like these that interest the newly formed North American Research and Action Network (NARAN).

Concerned with the effects of free trade on gender, race, and ethnicity, NARAN consists of scholars from the University of Memphis, as well as students, labor organizers, and researchers from other universities in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The group was formed this past spring during a conference at the U of M called "Trading Justice: NAFTA's New Links and Conflicts."

 "We have researchers who are economists, sociologists, political scientists, engineers, and environmental-justice experts, as well as anthropologists," said Jane Henrici, an anthropology professor at the U of M and a spokesperson for NARAN. "We're not necessarily anti-free trade, but we're definitely looking at it with a critical eye."

 NAFTA's passage removed tariffs and trade barriers for many products produced in North America. Proponents say it brought economic growth and a higher standard of living for workers in Canada, Mexico and the United States, but critics argue that rapid industrialization in Mexico has caused environmental degradation and unregulated working conditions.

 NARAN is also studying fair trade, a system wherein consumers pay higher prices to ensure workers are paid a living wage.

One area of local concern is the construction of I-69, a highway connecting the three countries. The exact route around and through Memphis has yet to be determined, but Henrici's students have documented the proposed routes and their alternatives.

Pictures from this project are posted on NARAN's Web site (http://cas.memphis.edu/NARAN/naran.html), which Henrici says will be the main form of communication for the group. Information and research on NAFTA and I-69's effects on local communities will be posted on the site.

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