Cost Of Free Trade

By bogotapost June 17, 2014

Colombian farmers say they are unable to compete with cheap imports.

Analysis: ignoring agrarian strikers’ demands will not make them go away, and may make matters worse


With all of the news coverage surrounding Colombia’s presidential election, an important story has taken a back seat in the press:: the paro agrario, or agrarian strike. This is the second such strike in nearly nine months, when subsistence farmers, or campesinos in Spanish, and social justice groups, attempted to pressure the government into improving conditions in the agricultural sector.

The protesters are demanding the government enact price controls on pesticides, fertilizers and fuel, and to subsidize the production of cotton, potatoes, corn, rice and other food staples. Most importantly, the striking farmers are calling for price controls on cheap agricultural goods flooding the country under Colombia’s free trade agreements with other countries.

While the grievances and hardships experienced by Colombia’s campesinos are not new, many international and domestic observers recognize that the agricultural sector has been significantly – and often adversely – affected since the passage of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States.

Signed in October 2011, the FTA is not unlike other agreements made between the United States and its trading partners in that it lowers tariffs and other barriers in order to facilitate greater commercial ties. According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, the agreement was made in order to create more American jobs by increasing exports and thus growing the economy.

Among the anticipated benefits for Colombians, the Colombian Ministry of Trade stated that the FTA will give “greater choice of products at better prices.” In addition, Colombian entrepreneurs and exporters would become more competitive and the national economy would grow, as would employment and income levels. President Juan Manuel Santos predicted the creation of up to 500,000 new Colombian jobs as a result of the agreement.

But the FTA was met with much resistance. In the US, many Democratic members of Congress and union leaders – normally allies of President Obama – were critical of the plan and it was stalled for years. The powerful AFL-CIO union was particularly critical of the deal given Colombia’s poor labour and human rights record. It is estimated that around 3,000 Colombian union leaders and activists have been killed since the mid-1980s. The Obama administration only passed the FTA after guarantees of labour and human rights protections were written into the agreement.

An Oxfam report claimed that Colombian whey, rice, white maize, milk powder and pork were the products most at risk due to increased amounts of subsidized US imports

Several years ago, the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture warned that if the FTA passed without providing them with adequate protection and support, rural farmers could face serious consequences. In 2005, a study commissioned by the ministry concluded that rural problems could be exacerbated by the agreement and leave farmers with “no more than three options: migration to cities or other countries … working in illicit [drug] cultivation zones or affiliation with illegal armed groups.”

One of the agricultural strike’s leaders, César Pachón, has said Colombian farmers are unable to compete with the cheap imported agricultural products from American producers who receive billions of dollars in US government subsidies every year. Indeed, this is precisely what many international aid groups predicted and have shown in subsequent studies.

Nine months after the FTA went into effect, Oxfam produced a detailed report which claimed that Colombian whey, rice, white maize, milk powder and pork were the products most at risk due to increased amounts of subsidized imports from the US. As a result, “significant declines were expected in [Colombian] domestic production, and consequently the income of farm families.” According to the report, this “contradicts the promises made by the Colombian government as to the benefits of the [FTA].”

But there are things that the Colombian government can do to alleviate the suffering of struggling farmers. In its report, Oxfam recommended that the government “adopt a tracking system to allow timely action to mitigate the adverse effects of the [FTA] on the peasant economy.” More generally, the government needs to “take steps to develop the productive capacity and competitiveness of the agricultural sector, particularly small producers, and reverse the troubling trends that further undermine their viability.”

Put simply, the government should be fulfilling the commitments it made to farmers after last year’s nation-wide protests. Indeed, this second round of strikes only occurred because the Santos administration largely failed to live up to its promises.

According the independent news and analysis website La Silla Vacía, of the nine commitments Santos made to farmers last September, only two have been met, with two others seeing some progress. That means more than half of the demands have been virtually ignored by the government.

When asked about the effects of the agreement, Santos said, “In all FTAs, there are winners and losers. There are always some sectors that feel injured, unprotected … we have to see how we can help them.”

Until the government actually commits to helping the “losers” of the FTA, the social unrest – and the conditions producing it – will surely continue.
Joel Gillin is a freelance journalist from the United States. He has been based in Colombia since April 2014.

By Joel Gillin

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