Between Mobilisation and Conflict

Colombia and Free Trade Agreements
20 September 2013
Policy briefing

The agrarian sector launched a national strike in Colombia which spread quickly across other sectors, against the impacts of the FTA with the US and Canada. It is evident that the current economic model has failed as a result of a combination of several factors, structurally and historically.

On 19 August 2013, community organisations and social movements linked with the agrarian sector launched a national strike in Colombia that quickly took on the character of a popular mobilisation as other social sectors joined the protests. Health, education, and transport workers, as well as urban, indigenous, and afro-descendent organisations filled the streets and roads throughout the country. There was strong repression on the part of police and military forces in areas of dispute, characterised by excessive use of force against the protestors.

The demands presented to the national government, and the mobilisations which at times took the character of a popular uprising, demonstrate that this is not a momentary upset but rather is the result of structural problems related with the production model, the political system, and land tenure – conflicts that have intensified in the recent years since the 2011 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Canada and the 2012 FTA with the United States came into force.

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Conclusions and forecasts

Having briefly reviewed some of the historical conditions that have led to the current situation in Colombia and that were aggravated by the implementation of the Free Trade Agreements, it is evident that the current economic model has failed as a result of a combination of several factors.

First, the policy of de-agrarianisation of the countryside to facilitate the entrance of foreign products and the territorialisation of transnational capital has generated devastating impacts and conflicts for peasant communities. This – combined with the mining-energy policy and the conflicts that it generates through the inevitable territorial dispossession – leads to a scenario of social discontent, pressure on territories, systematic rights violations, and increased precariousness of living conditions of ethnic communities. The realisation by many city-dwellers of their ongoing connections with rural areas (from which previous generations had migrated) and the threats to that relationship caused by these policies brought together an unprecedented alliance linking the countryside with the city.

Despite the promotion of trade liberalisation and attraction of foreign investments reinforced by the FTAs as tools to develop the Colombian economy, the results of the first years of implementation is that Colombia has returned to a primary-product economy and increased its dependence on the foreign market. This has deepened structural problems and further deteriorated living conditions of peoples in rural as well as urban areas, thereby intensifying socio-environmental conflicts. An agrarian policy that addresses historical and structural problems of concentration of land and that promotes peasant farming continues to be urgent and necessary.

It is important to keep in mind that there have been no substantial or sustainable improvements in human rights and labor rights in the country, which shows non-compliance to the signed agreements that were conditional to the approval of the FTAs. There remains an open question regarding the application of monitoring, evaluation, and control mechanisms established in the framework of those agreements.

Although the FTAs have been presented as non-negotiable, the social awakening in Colombia is leading to calls to re-negotiate or suspend the treaties that have been already ratified and are currently being implemented. It raises the need for the more in-depth examination, critiques and opposition to the treaties that the government expects to sign with South Korea, Israel, and the Pacific Alliance, among others.

It is also worth noting that the agrarian and popular mobilisations speak to a double movement that is being registered in Colombian society. On one side, the increased visibility of peasant farmers by urban sectors and by layers of society that once again understand the importance of the sector regarding the guarantee to life in the country. At the same time, and as the other side of the same coin, an understanding by peasants that they are a political actor with the right to food sovereignty and territorial control and the ability to demonstrate power in relationships that have been historically controlled by landowners and national elites

photo by Leonardo Jiménez