The Unanswered Questions Surrounding the U.S.-Colombia FTA

Bowing to pressure, the Obama administration is pushing the FTA forward with little consideration of its potential impacts on marginalized and impoverished sectors of Colombian society.
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As the U.S. government rams the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia forward there are many questions and concerns that are being disregarded. But the impacts will be impossible to ignore.

My colleague and I recently interviewed representatives from different sectors of Colombian society for a short video series we are launching today on the impacts of the FTA. The messages we heard were similar: the FTA will only serve to deepen inequality in Colombia and further impoverish marginalized sectors of society, pushing more people into illicit coca cultivation or the ranks of the illegally armed groups. A similar message is expressed in a letter sent to members of Congress today from over 400 US and Colombian human rights, development, environmental and religious organizations.

Sadly, the message doesn't seem to be reaching U.S. policymakers. Bowing to pressure from some sectors of Congress, the Obama Administration is pushing the FTA forward with little consideration of its potential impacts on marginalized and impoverished sectors of Colombian society and its potential to undermine other U.S. policy interests in the region.

The Labor Action Plan, signed by the U.S. and Colombian governments in April to advance the FTA, secures some important commitments on workers rights, including expanding protection programs for trade unionists and designating 100 labor inspectors to address abuses committed by the so-called "cooperatives" that limit worker rights. It is commendable that the Obama Administration has insisted on this important linkage of advancements in protection of trade unionists as well as labor rights improvements to the FTA, and that the Santos Administration has assumed this challenge. Nevertheless, the Action Plan is not legally linked to the FTA and thus if the Colombian government were to abandon its commitments once the FTA is implemented, Colombian workers would have no recourse. Furthermore, it would take time as well as political will to ensure that this plan leads to a reduction in violence and effective exercise of labor rights. The priority appears to be to finalize this before the end of the year, rather than ensuring real and lasting results.

More to the point, the Action Plan completely fails to address any of the broader human rights and security issues in Colombia. As the letter sent to members of Congress today highlights, one major condition sets the U.S.-Colombia FTA apart from other trade agreements: the presence of an ongoing internal armed conflict. Colombia has one of the longest ongoing armed conflicts in the world, which has caused over 5 million Colombians to abandon more than 6.6 million hectares of land. An active conflict with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and ELN continues, resulting in many human rights abuses against the civilian population. According to official statistics, new paramilitary groups continue to operate in 23 of Colombia's 32 departments, committing widespread and systematic grave human rights abuses. The most vulnerable groups, including Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, poor rural farmers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are also the most likely to be negatively impacted by the FTA.

"We're worried about the impacts [of the FTA] on the rural areas because it's in these areas where the conflict is happening, where illicit crops are taking force and this is because in these areas citizens' rights aren't protected and the standards of poverty and misery are concentrated in rural areas. So what will be the impact of the FTA for these areas that are less competitive because they have been abandoned?"

Marco Romero, President of the Colombian NGO, Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) asked in one of the interviews for our video series.

It was a concern echoed by many of the people we interviewed. Colombian small-scale farmers would be devastated by the implementation of the FTA. The FTA would force Colombian agricultural products to compete without any protection against U.S. subsidized commodities. A rigorous investigation by Colombian economists Luis Jorge Garay and Fernando Barberi showed that as a result of the implementation of the FTA, Colombia's 1.8 million small farmers would see their net agricultural income fall by over 16 percent on average. And nearly 400,000 small farmers - who on average have less than five years of formal education and already live below the poverty line - would lose between 48 and 70 percent of their income. The FTA could contradict the goals of U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in the country by pushing small farmers to cultivate coca, a far more lucrative crop, undercutting alternative development programs in which the United States has invested for more than a decade. Armed groups are also likely to benefit from increased recruitment from an impoverished peasantry with few economic opportunities. The U.S. Office on Colombia and Oxfam America recently brought former Colombian Vice-Minister of Agriculture, Santiago Perry, to present a policy proposal to mitigate these potentially devastating impacts. However, the Colombian government has yet to officially support and implement such a proposal.

Cesar Diaz, a leader of a large collective of small-scale farmers in the department of Cauca, expressed to us his concern of the impacts of the FTA on rural communities like those he works with.

"We would send this message to the citizens of the U.S., to President Obama and the Congress: The situation in our country is critical, the trade agreement will bring about more unemployment, which contributes to more people willing to join the conflict and that, as opposed to generating progress, is going to make the situation even more difficult."

Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities - who are already disproportionately affected by the armed conflict - will also be negatively impacted by the FTA. The landmark Colombian Constitutional Court rulings 004 and 005 on the impact of forced displacement on indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities specifically highlighted how the expansion of agricultural, mining, infrastructure and tourism megaprojects has led to the forced displacement of these communities from their legally titled ancestral land. This finding was also echoed in the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues' 2010 report on Colombia. Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities possess legally-granted land rights to more than 36 million hectares of land. The FTA is likely to lead to increased demand for this fertile and bio-diverse land which is strategically located and rich in resources. But as history has shown, the expansion of business activity in these communities' land is likely to lead to further displacement and violence.

Danelly Estupiñan, a leader of the Process of Black Communities in Buenaventura, Colombia's principle port city on the Pacific Coast, spoke to us of her concern for the impact of the FTA on Afro-Colombians living in the resource-rich Pacific region.

"The FTA not only negotiates merchandise, it also deals with natural resources, like fuel and gas, and that's precisely what Buenaventura and the Pacific have. Therefore we're certain that the levels of displacement would increase, that systematic violation of human rights would increase because it is these territories that hold these resources."

What are the Colombian and U.S. governments doing to mitigate these negative impacts of the FTA on vulnerable and marginalized communities in Colombia? Very little it seems. Our organizations and our partners in Colombia have been raising these concerns for years now, yet the Action Plan does not touch on any of these broader human rights and security issues. I think we should all be asking our policymakers some tough questions, like: What will they do when the FTA is passed and it devastates Colombian small-scale farmers and leads to a surge in coca cultivation? What will they do when the FTA is passed and there is an increase in forced displacement? What will they do after the FTA is approved and trade unionists and human rights defenders continue to be threatened and killed? These are the kind of concerns that should be thoughtfully addressed now, not after it is too late.

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