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10 years of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in Buenaventura: forced displacement increases

In May, the US-Colombia free trade agreement marked its 10th anniversary. On this anniversary, a humanitarian mission was organized in the rural area of Buenaventura due to the increasing forced displacement suffered by Black and Indigenous communities in Calima and San Juan rivers.

By John Walsh

Photo (CONPAZCol): the humanitarian mission in Las Colonias, on the Calima river

The free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States officially took effect on May 15, 2012. Since then, Buenaventura, the city that is home to Colombia’s largest port by volume and only major port on the Pacific coast, has seen shipping terminals expand, including, in November of 2016, with the opening of the new container terminal of Aguadulce, owned by companies based in the Philippines and Singapore and constructed largely on land belonging to the collective territory of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Bajo Calima. The paved access road to the terminal cuts through previously forested areas of the collective territory, drastically changing the landscape by removing trees and homes, while introducing heavy truck traffic with its noise and air pollution.

The highway between Buenaventura and Colombia’s big cities has been greatly improved, with new tunnels reducing the likelihood of closure due to the landslides that are not infrequent in the hilly, wet setting.

And Colombian exports have diversified beyond petroleum, coal, and gold. But whereas before the free trade agreement Colombia had a bilateral trade surplus with the United States, since 2017 it has run a trade deficit.

The population of Buenaventura, 45% of whom are registered victims of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, has not shared in the wealth generated by the port, and five years ago, also in May, the people of Buenaventura launched a civic strike that shut down commerce for three weeks. As of that year, 2017, official unemployment was at 62%, and nine out of ten jobs were informal. The poverty rate was 64% in the urban area and 91% in the rural zone, with 9% of the population in extreme poverty. 40% of the city lacks sewer connections; tapwater is not potable, and a quarter of the urban area is not even connected to the supply. The nearest fully equipped hospital is over 100 kilometers away, in Cali. After first unleashing harsh repression, the national government finally came to the bargaining table to negotiate a landmark agreement for major infrastructure improvements over the course of a decade, improvements the bulk of which remain to be realized, but which could open a door to a better future.

What has not changed, in fact what has gotten worse, is the recurring pattern of Black and Indigenous communities being displaced from their collective territories, or confined within them. In May of 2022, a group of these communities, joined together in the Juntanza Interétnica, Social y Popular de Buenaventura, convened a humanitarian mission of local, national, and international organizations to visit the communities and seek solutions to the violations of their well-being.

The communities are displaced or confined by armed actors including the paramilitaries of the AGC (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia), insurgents of the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), dissident elements of the dissolved and demobilized FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), criminal groups that make no pretense of having a political purpose, and Colombia’s own military forces. Collective territories attract the attention of these groups both as a route of transit for illicit economies – narcotrafficking, illegal mining, arms smuggling – and as a site for these activities, in the form of coca cultivation or mining sites. The national military, ostensibly combatting the illegal armed groups, appears instead to view the civilian population as the enemy, along the lines of the counterinsurgency or internal enemy doctrines ingrained in military culture over the course of decades.

Displacement and confinement, however, also serve a longer-term agenda by clearing the way for megaprojects such as further port expansion. The pattern of paramilitary activity in Colombia has been to view land in terms of its capitalist value – for the mono-cultivation of cash crops or as a place from which natural resources can be extracted - instead of as a self-sustaining home for a collective community and its cultural heritage. And paramilitaries have been linked to monied interests that stand to profit from the expulsion or subjugation of communities.

The Juntanza and allies seek to advance a project of mutual self-protection called the Eje Humanitario, consisting of places of refuge for displaced communities plus support for their return to or relocation of collective territories. Individually, the communities have little political power; together, and with national and international accompaniment, the struggle is less uneven.


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