Pressure From Colombian President for U.S. to Approve Trade Agreement: Some Issues Remain Unsolved

By Dava Castillo, Courtesy of AllVoices Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday requested the U.S. Congress to approve the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in November 2006. The agreement would strengthened economic ties between the U.S. and Colombia by eliminating tariffs and other barriers to goods and services and expand trade. The agreement offers U.S. businesses, manufacturers, farmers and ranchers opportunities in Colombia and guarantees Colombia permanent access to the U.S. market. The agreement must first be acted on in the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees before it can be considered by the full Congress. Colombia reported a trade deficit equivalent to 376 Million USD in November of 2010. Colombia's major exports are petroleum, coffee, coal, nickel, gold and nontraditional exports (e.g. cut flowers, semiprecious stones, sugar, and tropical fruits). Colombia's major imports are industrial and transportation equipment, consumer goods, chemicals, paper products, fuels, and electricity. Its main trading partners are: The United States, European Union, Venezuela, China and Mexico. Obstacles to Ratifying Agreement The agreement is expected to support Colombia’s “reform-minded government” promoting policies to combat narcotics trafficking, reinforce democratic institutions and generate economic development. However, U.S. legislators in the past have indicated they would not sign the agreement unless it was rewritten to include protections for labor rights and the environment. An additional concern was registered with the importation of Colombian sugar which could compete with American sugar producers. Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for trade unionists, and has a history of blocking unions. Ninety five percent of approximately 3,000 cases of assassination of union members committed over the last 30 years remain unprosecuted. Culture of Impunity Despite being one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, the rule of law continues to be weak and impunity reigns as cited in a critical report issued in 2010 by Amnesty International. Human rights abuses such as displacement of indigenous people, targeting killings, and disappearances remain unpunished. This situation has existed for decades, and perpetrators are not sought or prosecuted. . Judges, lawyers, witnesses, human rights defenders, families of victims, and prosecutors live in a culture of fear and are regularly threatened and killed. In the past fifteen years 300 people working in judicial investigations have been killed. Internal Conflict Continues Conflict continues to have devastating consequences on civilian population with indigenous communities being profoundly affected. According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), at least 114 Indigenous women, men and children were killed and many forced to relocate in 2009. The UN reports the guerrilla group FARC is responsible for most of these killings as well as paramilitary groups and security forces. In addition FARC is guilty of hostage taking and recruitment of children for guerilla training and warfare. Between 2002-2009 there have been 4,700 collective threats against Indigenous communities, 90 kidnappings and 195 enforced disappearances. Whole communities have been isolated and trapped without access to food or medicines because of guerilla fighting as the warring factions deplete available resources. Schools have been used as military bases denying access to education, and teachers have been physically attacked. The level of malnutrition has risen as a result of hunting and fishing areas being blocked. In 2009, more than 111 civilians and members of the security forces were killed and 521 injured by landmines. There has been a decrease in kidnappings since 2008; however, FARC has resorted to kidnapping high-profile hostages in 2009 who were later released. Civilian Intelligence Service In September 2010, Colombian government announced disbanding the civilian intelligence service after evidence it had illegally intercepted the communications of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and judges for a least seven year and colluded with paramilitary groups. Paramilitary Groups Reports in the Organization of American States Mission to Support the Peace and Progress in Colombia in 2010 suggest that paramilitary groups are becoming more organized as well as their capacity for renewal, especially among the leadership. Marginalized social groups are among those targeted. Victims include homeless, sex workers, lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people, young adults, and drug addicts. Paramilitary groups continue to exert social control, particularly in poverty communities. UN High Commissioner Report on Human Rights The UN report states some efforts to combat extrajudicial executions and serious violations human rights continue to take place citing human rights abuses by guerrilla groups and illegally armed groups that emerged since paramilitary demobilization. In addition 80 members of their Congress were under investigation for alleged links to paramilitary groups. Environmental Concerns Colombia is the second most biologically diverse country on Earth, home to about 10 percent of the world's species. This biodiversity results from Colombia's varied ecosystems—from the rich tropical rainforest to the coastal cloud forests to the open savannas. While on paper nearly 10 percent of Colombia is under some form of protection, its rich biodiversity is increasingly threatened. Deforestation in Colombia results primarily from small-scale agricultural activities, logging, mining, energy development, infrastructure construction, large-scale agriculture, and the cocaine trade. Animal collection and pollution are also environmental issues in the country. Colombia's Pacific Coast rainforests are rapidly disappearing due to gold mining and palm-oil plantations. By one estimate, in the mid-1990s, industrial gold mining alone cleared 80,000 hectares of forest per year, while contaminating local rivers with mercury and siltation. Colombia is a leading producer of coca, the plant that provides the main ingredient of cocaine. Much of Colombia's coca is grown by poor farmers because it generates more income than any other crop. Typically farmers convert the plant into coca paste and sell it to groups—including paramilitaries and Colombian rebels—who refine it into cocaine and export it to markets like the United States, which is the world's largest consumer of the narcotic. The ecological impacts of coca production are significant as well. Each acre requires clearing of roughly four acres of forest while the dumping of chemicals used to process coca leaves (including kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone, and carbide) pollutes local waterways. Colombia has oil and gas deposits but ongoing instability has somewhat limited potential development. Attacks on oil pipelines and installations by guerrillas in Eastern Colombia have resulted in oil spills and pollution. It is questionable whether sustainable peace in Colombia will further environmental abuses through plundering and exploitation by foreign investors, or controls by the Colombian government and provisional requirements in trade agreements can impose restrictions that preserve and protect Colombia’s natural resources. Views Against Ratifying the Trade Agreement Farmers: Colombian farmers often lack technology, infrastructure, and or physical access to markets. Without protections against U.S.imported agricultural goods, many Colombians will lose their livelihood. Without alternatives for feeding their families, many Colombian farmers have no choice but to grow illicit crops, such as coca. Union Busting: U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, Chiquita, and Drummond Coal have already been accused of and/or sued for hiring paramilitaries who kill, threaten, torture, and kidnap Colombian union members. The FTA would push Colombia to lower already low wages, to weaken already poor labor standards, and to remove or reduce laws that once guaranteed workers the right to receive overtime pay, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to worker’s compensation. Privatization: The privatization requirements of the FTA could grant multinationals corporations the right to further buy and control sectors of the economy, such as Colombian judicial systems, water supplies, telecommunications, energy, healthcare, transportation, education, the postal service, or even police departments. Corporations would then be able to decide what areas to serve and not serve based on profitability—not need or right. What Is At Stake for The People of Colombia The considerations for the U.S. Congress to ratify the treaty include human rights issues specifically with regard to indigenous populations, internal political turmoil and injustice, environmental concerns, labor issues, provisions that contribute to the exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources, and the threat of multinational corporations divesting the rights of Colombian people of self determination and preservation and control of their resources. Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is Anchor for Allvoices Read original post here