Now that the damage is done, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is signed, and up and running, the United States has been conspicuously absent from the conversation about Colombia’s agricultural strikes. Although newsworthy in England, Spain, Germany, and other European countries, most mainstream U.S. media outlets failed to take note of the manifestations until President Santos deployed 50,000 troops in Bogotá last Friday after protests got out of hand.
While The Guardian and the BBC published detailed accounts of the strikes, coverage in The New York Times and other U.S. publications has been limited. The New York Times reprinted a short Associated Press piece on the militarization of Bogotá eleven days after the strikes began, but failed to mention Colombia’s FTA with the U.S. With the exception of Reuters and The Huffington Post, coverage in other mainstream media outlets has mainly focused on President Santos’ response to demonstrations in the capital.
Although you wouldn’t know it from U.S. newspapers, there have been many newsworthy aspects of the now 19 day agrarian strike in Colombia. For one, farmers in several regions of the country have managed to block major highways for close to two weeks, defying soldiers and riot police. Tens of thousands of people across the country have gathered to bang pots and pans in a show of solidarity with the campesinos that has been remarkably widespread. Their demonstrations have been met with excessive force on the part of Colombia’s riot police, prompting Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga and local government officials in the department of Boyacá to publicly denounce the abuses.
Even more noteworthy, in terms of U.S. government and business interests, is the relationship between the FTA implemented in May of 2012 and current protests. Considering the fact that this agreement is partly to blame for the farmers’ worsening economic conditions in Colombia, you would have thought it worth at least a passing mention. Among other petitions, the striking farmers are asking the government to stop the importation of various agricultural products and demanding the immediate suspension of free trade agreements with the U.S. and the European Union.
Since the FTA between the United States and Colombia has gone into effect, both governments have touted the deal as a harbinger of economic growth. A message on the website of Colombia’s U.S. Embassy reads, “With the FTA in place, U.S.-Colombia trade partnership is stronger than ever and the highly complementary U.S. and Colombian economies are reaping the benefits.”
The attached report goes on to highlight the fact that in the sixteen months the FTA has been in effect, U.S. agricultural exports to Colombia have increased by an astounding 68 per cent. Barley, corn, cotton, wheat, and soybean farmers in the U.S. are enjoying the immediate elimination of tariffs, and poultry and pork producers are sure to benefit over the next five to ten years as their products become tariff-free.
The Colombian Embassy website proudly points out that U.S. farmers “are active in [their] support of the FTA.”
And why wouldn’t they be? In 2012 U.S. farmers received $15 billion in agricultural subsidies from the U.S government. They are now enjoying the elimination of tariffs on more than 70 percent of their exports to Colombia. The International Trade Commission predicts that the FTA will increase U.S. GDP by a total of $2.5 billion.
For farmers in Colombia, however, the Free Trade Agreement has brought nothing but misery. With small plots of land and limited technology, most farmers can’t compete with the sudden influx of agricultural and dairy products from the U.S. and Europe. Coupled with the rising costs of production, free trade agreements have created an untenable situation in which farmers can’t make ends meet.
Before the FTA, potato farmers from the departments of Boyacá and Cundinamarca were protected by a 5 to 20 per cent tariff leveled on U.S. tuber imports. Now there is nothing standing between them and financial ruin.
Farmers of other agricultural products have met the same fate. Oxfam International estimates that the average income of 1.8 million small farmers in Colombia will drop 16 per cent as a result of the FTA. According to a 2011 Oxfam report, 400,000 farmers who were living on less than minimum wage before the FTA was implemented will lose between 48 and 70 per cent of their earnings. They will undoubtedly join Colombia’s massive internally displaced population—the largest of any country in the world. In fact, these farmers are likely part of the reason the number of internally displaced people increased by 46 per cent in 2012 in comparison with the previous year, according to a report published by the Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES).
In response to protester demands, the Colombian government announced the suspension Thursday morning of a controversial resolution regulating the seeds Colombian farmers are allowed to plant in their fields. Resolution 970 of 2010, which applies intellectual property laws to seeds, prohibits farmers from reusing patented seeds for commercial purposes. Instead of continuing their tradition of recycling seeds from year to year, farmers must buy new seeds after every harvest or risk paying fines and spending time in jail.
Although the Instituto Colombiano de Agricultura claims that similar regulations have been in place since 1976, renewing this type of agreement through Resolution 970 was a requirement for U.S. approbation of the FTA.
It remains to be seen whether or not the mainstream U.S. media and the U.S. government will start to pay attention now that Monsanto and other genetically modified seed corporations are at risk of losing money.