Colombia Uprising: Is This What "Free Trade" Looks Like?
Colombian farmers are dumping tons of oranges onto highways. Roadways have been blocked throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of Colombian protestors are risking rubber bullets and even live ammunition to take to the streets.
Unfair trade is one of the rallying cries of the underreported protests currently wracking Colombia. Protesting groups are asking the Colombian government (among other things) to suspend and renegotiate the U.S.-Colombia “Free Trade” Agreement (FTA). Thanks largely to the FTA, which took effect in May 2012, highly-subsidized U.S. agricultural products have started to swamp Colombia’s small-scale farmers, contributing to their displacement, the deterioration of livelihoods across Colombia, and the loss of the country’s food security.
Before the FTA was passed, Colombia’s own Minister of Agriculture predicted a miserable outcome for the country’s farmers. He warned that if the asymmetric deal took effect, Colombian farmers “would have no more than three options: migration to the cities or other countries (especially the United States or bordering countries), leaving to work in drug cultivation zones, or affiliating with illegal armed groups.” Not content to accept any of those three fates, Colombia’s farmers are now making their voices heard.
For an on-the-ground perspective on the FTA-fed tumult in Colombia, Julia Duranti of Witness for Peace’s team in Colombia offers this guest post:
A Struggle for Survival in Colombia’s Countryside
Julia Duranti, Witness for Peace Colombia International Team
Though you wouldn’t know it from most English-language media or from heads of state, last week tensions in Colombia’s countryside came to a head. But not between the military and armed groups like the FARC, the usual suspects in foreign reporting on Colombia. The source of this uprising lies in policies not up for discussion in the country’s current peace talks: the impact of the U.S.-Colombia FTA – implemented in May 2012 – and policies that have similarly afflicted Colombian campesinos (small-scale farmers).
Colombia’s campesinos launched the protests – which have overtaken the nation – because they perceive the FTA, and policies like it, to be a threat not just to their production, but their very existence.
The National Grassroots and Agrarian Strike began on August 19 when over 200,000 potato, rice, fruit, coffee, dairy and livestock farmers; miners; truck-drivers; teachers; healthcare workers; and students left their work activities and blocked roadways in 30 key corridors around the country, with the provinces of Boyacá, Valle del Cauca and Nariño being most affected.
The diverse protesters’ list of demands includes suspension and renegotiation of the U.S.-Colombia FTA, financial and political support for agricultural production, access to land, recognition of campesino, indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, the ability to practice small-scale mining, the guarantees of political rights of rural communities, and social investment in rural areas, including in education, healthcare, housing and infrastructure.
Along with roadblocks and marches, in symbolic acts intended to express their inability to earn a living and their frustration at government inertia, dairy farmers in Boyacá poured out over 6,000 liters of milk while citrus farmers in Valle del Cauca dumped 5,000 tons of oranges onto the highway.
What could possibly bring farmers to willingly destroy their own products? Campesino livelihoods have been devastated, a process that began with economic liberalization under President Cesár Gaviria in the early 1990’s and continued with a host of Colombian laws that cleared the way for the U.S-Colombia FTA. Then came the FTA itself. Just over a year old, the deal is already taking its predicted toll on Colombia’s countryside. An FTA-enabled influx of heavily-subsidized U.S. products has contributed to the breakdown of Colombia’s local economies and the displacement of its farmers, fueling the urgency of the current protests.
Despite promises of more jobs and increased exports, the balance after year one of the U.S.-Colombia FTA is dismal for Colombia. According to Colombian paper El Espectador, Colombia’s exports to the U.S. actually fell 4.5% between May 2012 and March 2013, while Colombia’s imports from the U.S. rose 19.7%. In the agroindustrial sector on which many Colombians depend for their livelihood, U.S. imports from Colombia rose 11.5%, but Colombian imports from the U.S. skyrocketed 70%. An economic study conducted prior to the FTA’s passage predicted that just such a scenario would lead to income losses of up to 70% for the vast majority of Colombia’s farmers, contributing to their displacement.
It is not only that strikers feel they cannot compete with heavily-subsidized U.S. production: they are actually prohibited from doing so. The FTA prohibits the Colombian government from subsidizing agriculture for export or domestic consumption, even as the U.S. government subsidizes U.S. agribusinesses to the tune of $15 billion each year.