Trading Against Colombia

Trading Against Colombia

A new trade deal with Colombia will flood the country with cheap US agricultural products, devastating rural farmers.


In July Congress took up a major trade package that includes free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. All these pacts are flawed in their own way, but none is more problematic than the proposed deal with Colombia, which would reward a political elite that has long repressed labor unions and could devastate that country’s rural farmers.

President Obama entered office vowing to strengthen the links between trade and human rights. A good start would have been to junk the Colombia FTA altogether, which was negotiated under George W. Bush. Instead, the administration set out to improve the agreement through negotiations with Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos. The result, unveiled in April, was a side agreement called the Action Plan, which lays out a series of promised steps by Colombia to bolster labor rights.

If the Obama administration thought the Action Plan would appease progressive critics of the FTA, it soon learned otherwise. The plan was instantly condemned by nearly every major US labor union, as well as the Sierra Club and leading progressives in Congress. Critics noted that fifty-one union officials were assassinated in Colombia in 2010—more than in all other nations combined and an increase over such killings in 2009. At least 2,500 unionists were arrested last year.

The key problem with the Action Plan is that none of its provisions are enforceable. The plan is merely a set of promises that Colombia could easily renege upon once Congress ratifies the FTA.

What’s more, the biggest problem with this FTA isn’t even addressed in the Action Plan: the pact would throw thousands of rural farmers out of work by allowing a flood of cheap US agricultural products—subsidized by American taxpayers—into Colombia. Farmers make up 20 percent of the nation’s labor force, and their livelihoods are now protected by steep tariffs on food imports. The FTA would change all that, with devastating results. According to a study funded by Oxfam International, the domestic production of corn and rice would fall by 20 percent, while farmers growing wheat, beans and pork would be hit even harder by US imports.

Overall, 1.8 million small farmers would see their incomes drop by an average of more than 16 percent, while 400,000 would experience income declines of 50–70 percent. The Oxfam study estimates that the FTA would destroy at least 20 percent of employment, or more than 15,000 jobs, for small farmers who already live on less than $3.90 per day. The Colombian government has no specific plan to retrain these rural workers—nor has the Obama administration asked for such a plan.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, there is a reason: the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement also put large numbers of rural farmers out of work while fattening profits for US agribusiness.

Unemployed rural farmers in poor countries don’t have many good choices. One obvious way to survive is to migrate to the United States in search of work, however risky such a journey may be. Both NAFTA and CAFTA have been widely credited with helping spur illegal immigration by peasants rendered destitute by the onslaught of cheap US farm products. Displaced farmers in Colombia might likewise head north—only to be greeted by an increasingly draconian US crackdown on undocumented workers (the irony of US hostility to economic refugees created by our own trade policies is seldom remarked on).

Legions of desperate Colombian peasants would have other choices, too—none of them good. If they can no longer survive by cultivating rice or corn, they might grow coca and help boost Colombia’s vast production of cocaine for the US market. Or, if they just want a paycheck, they could join one of Colombia’s many paramilitary groups. Another option—especially if they are angry about the collapse of their livelihood—would be to join the FARC, the leftist guerrilla group that remains actively at war with the Colombian government.

Proponents of the Colombia FTA, including officials in the Obama administration, say ratification would give an economic and political boost to that troubled nation. But the agreement seems designed to produce the opposite results: higher unemployment, more coca production, larger paramilitaries and a stepped-up insurgency. In short, the FTA would create yet more instability in Colombia.

Congress is still haggling about how to move forward on all three of the pending FTAs, as well as renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance to help US workers. To stop the Colombia deal, lawmakers may have to vote against a single legislative package that includes the TAA and the trade deals with South Korea and Panama.

Is this FTA really that bad? Yes, it is.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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