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May/June 2011
Vol. 36, No. 3


U.S.-Colombia FTA: Plan minimizes human, labor rights

Although as a presidential candidate he vowed to oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) until progress was made on human rights, in early April President Obama indicated that he was prepared to move forward with the U.S.-Colombia FTA after signing an "action plan" on labor rights with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. While the action plan represents some steps forward, it does not make adequate progress on labor rights, and it effectively removes other human rights concerns from consideration. Moreover the U.S.-Columbia FTA sadly resembles the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in that it promotes growth in exports and investment at the expense of local economies, ecological concerns and resilient local food systems.

The "action plan" signed by the Obama and Santos administrations outlines some movement forward on labor rights. It calls for hiring 480 new labor inspectors; it improves the system for lodging complaints about labor violations; it proposes legislation to impose penalties for anti-union activity and it expands protection programs for trade unionists. While these measures sound positive, Colombia is under no obligation to take action on these proposals in a timely manner.

Moreover, the action plan does nothing to address other significant human rights issues that have plagued Colombia. Nothing was included on dismantling paramilitaries, protecting human rights defenders or addressing needs of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

The Obama administration has signaled that it plans to send the FTA to Congress for a yes or no vote before the end of this year; the Republican-led House hopes to pass this agreement, as well as trade pacts with South Korea and Panama, by July 1.

There is concern that investment provisions of the U.S.-Colombia FTA will open the door for a flood of foreign investors in agriculture and extractive industries which will encourage even more illegal appropriation of lands and violent displacement of Colombians. Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have experienced disproportionately high rates of displacement, as much of their ancestral lands have been converted to oil palm plantations. Land use for these plantations has nearly doubled from 145,027 hectares in 1998 to 275,317 hectares in 2005. This industry is expected to increase with the new FTA continuing to cause deforestation, obliterate livelihoods, destroy ecological biodiversity while dislocating indigenous populations and decreasing their access to secure food supplies.

Like NAFTA, the U.S.-Colombia FTA would subject Colombian farmers to immediate competition with U.S. exports on a broad range of agricultural products. While prices are high for now, many Colombian farmers will find it difficult to compete with goods whose prices can vary so dramatically. As in Mexico under NAFTA, tariffs on corn and a few other sensitive products will gradually be phased out over a number of years (although the agreement does allow countries to speed up that transition). Mexico's economy in the wake of NAFTA demonstrated that even a long transition may be inadequate when there are no real alternatives in place for rural employment. Over two million farmers were displaced from agricultural livelihoods and compelled to migrate to urban areas or the United States to find work.

The 2008 food price crisis taught governments around the world how important it is to have tools to shield key markets from extremes so they can rebuild food systems. Conversely, the White House fact sheets on the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement announce an immediate elimination of Colombia's use of variable tariffs on agricultural products. With these tariffs essentially removed, Colombia has little capacity to protect fragile small-holder Colombian farmers. Unable to compete, some Colombian farmers will abandon farming while others will likely turn to coca crops for the drug trade.

As the process of economic globalization continues and the U.S. seeks to tie more and more countries into free trade agreements, economies have become so connected that price changes in one country echo around the world. Both farmers and consumers will be left at the mercy of volatile prices and markets rather than building a new approach that ensures a fair and resilient food system.

Faith in action:

The U.S.-Colombia trade agreement is expected to be presented for a vote in the next few months. When that happens, ask your member of Congress to oppose it.

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