Patrick Kane is Senior Programmes Officer for Resources and Conflict at War on Want.
Colombia bore witness to a remarkable uprising in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands of small and medium scale farmers, miners, students, health workers, lorry drivers and teachers staged a national ‘agrarian and popular strike’ for almost 3 weeks, despite facing a military response by President Juan Manuel Santos’ government which left at least twelve protestors dead and over 200 injured. The strike was the latest, and largest, in a wave of protests across different sectors which have engulfed the country this year. The unrest is only set to get deeper as the country’s disastrous bilateral trade agreements increasingly impact upon a population already suffering two decades of neoliberal economic policies.
The latest uprising dominated the Colombian media, which carried footage of road blocks, mass marches, noisy protests and bloodied protestors in cities and rural areas across the country. In a symbolic protest, farmers poured thousands of litres of milk and other farm produce on to the road. The country’s free trade agreements with the US and European Union (EU) have been a common thread throughout this year’s protests which have united varied sectors.
Colombia and the US finally signed the FTA in May 2012, ignoring widespread predictions of the disastrous impact which it would have in Colombia. In opening the Colombian economy up to US businesses selling anything from agricultural produce to university degrees, the deal forces Colombian businesses to compete with companies from the world’s most powerful economy (the EU quickly followed suit and tied up its own FTA which came into force last month despite not yet having passed through the necessary parliamentary hurdles on either side of the Atlantic). The ostensible purpose of the pacts is to benefit both sides through varied measures which remove barriers to trade on both sides. However, in his 2012 State of the Nation address President Obama made clear the real razon de ser of the US’s bilateral trade agreements when he stated “I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products.”
The situation of Colombian farmers is emblematic of the growing unrest in the country. Having suffered two decades of growing economic hardship under governments which have gradually increased dependence upon imported produce and eaten away at any support which they previously had, the campesinos (peasant farmers) must now contend with the impact of the FTA and the raft of legislation which the government has enacted over recent years in anticipation of the agreement coming into force. One leader told me “it’s like putting a straitjacket onto somebody who you’ve already beaten senseless”. Under the pact, Colombian producers must compete with agricultural imports from the US. However, whilst the US government continues to heavily subsidise its farmers, the FTA explicitly forbids the Colombian government from subsidising Colombian agriculture.
In order to end the strike the government agreed last week to freeze one of the most controversial laws which was passed in preparation for the implementation of the FTA. The law has been dubbed the ‘Monsanto law’ by the campesinos because it effectively prohibits them from using any seed which has not been ‘certified’ by the state, and thereby forces Colombian farmers to use the seeds of agribusiness multinationals such as US giant Monsanto. The process of certifying a seed is expensive and very technical, and thus beyond the means of many small and medium scale producers. According to the recent documentary, ‘9.70’, only 8% of certified seeds were registered by Colombian companies.
Furthermore, because seeds are deemed to be the intellectual property of the company which registered them, the traditional practice of holding back some seeds to use as seeds for the following year’s crop is now a crime for which a farmer can be sent to jail for 4 years. It has been reported that more than 2.5m tonnes of ‘illegal’ food has been seized and destroyed by the Colombian authorities since the decree was passed in 2010, in a country where around 40% of the rural population live in extreme poverty. This is the twisted logic of the free trade agreement. The Santos administration has publicly stated that it will freeze the law for two years, and use the break to rewrite the rules governing seed use.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be for Colombia. Economic analysts have pointed to varied reasons for optimism for the country’s prospects: consistently strong economic growth, bilateral trade agreements with the US, EU and Japan, and talk of a boom in natural resource extraction-related foreign investment if and when a peace agreement is signed between the government and FARC guerrillas ending the decades-old internal conflict.
Colombia has for decades been the United States’ South American model pupil. From the implementation of the national security doctrine in waging war against its own civilian population, to the implementation of ‘Washington consensus’ neoliberal economic and Plan Colombia, Colombia’s rulers have obediently implemented policies concocted in Washington which have caused untold suffering for tens of millions of Colombians. However, for many of those involved in the protests over the past few weeks the free trade agreement with the US and the EU are the final straw.
The agrarian and popular strike may have ended but more protests are in the offing, with university students ready to begin a new wave of protests to defend higher education against the reforms which the FTA obliges the government to enact. And therein lies the problem. Despite making positive noises about the need to create ‘defence mechanisms’, there is scant prospect of the US or EU permitting any meaningful alteration to their respective free trade agreements. And even less chance of the government moving away from the extractive-based neoliberal economic model. Hence its only answer to the protests is increased violence and repression of the social movement and those who defend them. In the first 6 months of this year, 37 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia, the highest 6-month toll for a decade. The talk may be of peace, but stormy times lie ahead.