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For five years, the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiated between the administrations of George Bush and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe was stalled in the US Congress because of violence against Colombian workers, including 51 union leaders assassinated in 2010 alone.
On April 7, President Obama and current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced they had reached an agreement that would smooth the way for passage. Under this plan, actions that violate labor rights would be criminalized (as though assassination isn’t already criminal); investigators would be assigned to look into abuses, and leaders could request protection. I do wonder how Colombia will be able to provide this protection given the extent of the violence. In the past months, I’ve received word almost every week of new murders: not only union organizers but small farmers and the honest judges who hear these cases, while the perpetrators too often are members of or linked to the security forces.
The attack on labor matters, of course, but the US Congress needs to understand it’s not the only problem with the FTA. Nothing stands in the way of our countries negotiating specific trade deals while the plan for so-called "free trade" actually restricts the parties’ freedom, taking away the freedom to negotiate and the freedom to set national economic policy.
To consider just a few troubling provisions:
What’s "free" about delaying the introduction and production of generic drugs in order to protect the profits of Big Pharma in Colombia where at least 50% of the people live in poverty?
What’s "free" about the US being allowed to continue our generous subsidies to agribusiness while Colombia would not be allowed to assist its own farmers. Instead, Colombia’s role would be to export biofuels and specific plantation-grown products, such as bananas ? exactly the products that have led to some of the worst human rights abuses in the country. Today, 5 million Colombians ? mostly rural people with limited education and no urban skills?are internally displaced, driven from their land and homes by killings and threats of violence. Over ten million acres of productive land are now in the hands of drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and their wealthy allies who plant African palm and yuca, creating huge monoculture agribusiness plantations to grow food for machines instead of for people.
The FTA will therefore increase violence and income inequality in a country where the two most secure founts of income for the masses are the drug trade and the armed conflict ? both of which the US is engaged in fighting at the cost so far of $6 billion. The FARC guerrilla army today is largely composed of young teens who join without any ideological indoctrination but in search of regular meals.
In a positive development, both the Colombian courts and the InterAmerican Court for Human Rights have ordered stolen lands returned to displaced communities. The US has even provided some financial assistance to implement return, but these communities face continued violence. In past months, because of the banana export business, communities in the Urab? region of Choc? have faced the invasion of their territory. Contractors working in concert with paramilitaries and Colombian soldiers, lure desperate people to the area where they are tricked into illegally occupying land in order to grow bananas for multinational Banacol. The situation is already fraught with danger and injustice and can only be exacerbated by passage of the FTA.
With the FTA, Colombia would lose the right to enforce environmental regulations on transnational oil and mining corporations such as Canada-based multinational Greystar which seeks to create a huge open pit gold mine in the Andes using explosives and sodium cyanide leaching basins. The proposed site, the p?ramos (or high altitude moors) of Santurb?n, is the source of water for the department of Santander. Local people protested. Artist David Navarro got attention for the cause when he took 17 co-conspirators up to the p?ramos where they stripped off their clothes and Navarro photographed an eloquent series of images: fragile bodies and fragile ecosystem, one woman holding a lamb in her naked arms.
A few years ago, activists presented 2 million signatures to the legislature seeking a Constitutional amendment, similar to one passed in Uruguay, recognizing clean drinking water as a human right. The proposal would prohibit water supply privatization, something only too likely to be imposed under "free trade." So far the activists have not prevailed, but the environmental movement keeps growing and holds broad appeal as it promises grassroots empowerment and change without the Marxist orientation that polarized the population and scared many citizens away from reform.
There’s potential here to transform a long-suffering country. In the 1960s, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and spurred on by unconscionable exploitation and injustice and the all-too-frequent and predictable murders of political reformers, many of the most idealistic Colombians concluded there was no alternative to violent resistance. They went to the mountains and the jungles to join the armed struggle. Today, it seems when activists head for mountains and rainforest they go peacefully in defense of the environment. On March 14th, to mark the International Day of Action for Rivers, communities around the country, with significant youth participation, protested against dams and hydroelectric megaprojects. In January, in Putumayo in the Amazon basin (where no paved road exists between the department capital and its major city), a nonviolent coalition of indigenous people and Afro-Colombians blocked ? at least so far ? the construction of a highway through their territory for the benefit of an oil consortium.
Meanwhile, back in Santander, after a groundswell of protest against the Greystar gold mine, Carlos Rodado, the minister of Mines and Energy, reviewed the company’s environmental impact and technical study and said the gold mining project was not viable. Translating his words: "If the operation of Greystar’s mine is going to be of the same quality as the studies that have been presented, we have serious reason to be worried."
The Uribe administration seemed more interested in catering to foreign investors than in protecting the environment. Under Santos, there are signs of change but this welcome shift is threatened by passage of the FTA. Does it make any sense for Colombia to lose the right to protect the environment at the very moment when that power is being used?
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. Her new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristiz?bal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. More about her work can be found at: http://dianelefer.weebly.com/.