By Julia Duranti, Witness for Peace Colombia
While the U.S. Senate gears up for a final vote following Tuesday’s temporary setback on Fast-Track Trade Promotion Authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—the U.S.’s largest and most secretive Free Trade deal to date—today the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement turned three years old. All of its original critiques, particularly regarding labor and human rights concerns, continue to be relevant for Colombia and current TPP negotiations. The Witness for Peace Colombia team sat down with Colombian human rights defenders to get their thoughts on three years of Free Trade with the U.S., now Colombia’s largest trading partner. Their responses highlight the importance of continuing to oppose the TPP as a deal that’s bad for workers, communities and the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Fast-Track’s fate will likely be determined in the House of Representatives. If you haven’t already, click here to tell your Representatives to vote no on Fast-Track and oppose the TPP.
Gerardo Cajamarca, Union Leader with Sinaltrainal who has asylum in the U.S. due to paramilitary threats against his life: “The effects of Free Trade and the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement were felt well before the final agreement was implemented. They weren’t agreements; they were impositions. And these impositions have made Free Trade a process of war, extermination and genocide against the working class. Over the last 20 years during which the Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated, 3,000 unionists in Colombia were murdered, and that this continues to happen daily in Colombia. But it’s not just unionists. Afro-Colombians, small-scale farmers and indigenous communities are also being assassinated and displaced. It’s said that Colombia has the second highest rate of displacement in the world, right? And why is that? It is the result of imposing Free Trade Agreements. We do not accept these agreements and we view them as illegitimate. “These realities are even clearer in the city of Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port and unofficial capital of its Pacific coast that has seen major changes due to plans to increase port capacity and infrastructure since Colombia has signed onto Free Trade Agreements with the U.S., Canada, the Pacific Alliance regional trading block, South Korea, and the European Union. Leaders discuss unfettered port expansion and related tourist development projects, accompanied by increasingly precarious labor conditions and displacement.
Jhon Jairo Castro Balanta, President of Buenaventura Portworkers Union:“Labor rights have been impacted by a lack of follow-through from both sides: in this case the Colombian and the U.S. government, who only demanded that Colombia comply with certain measures because the U.S. wanted to ratify the Free Trade Agreement. But as soon as the FTA was approved pressure to comply with the Labor Action Plan has disappeared. We’ve seen exploitative subcontracting practices increase and there are no protections for us. In a triumph for noncompliance, we have a really weak Ministry of Labor, which didn’t hire the number of labor inspectors that it was supposed to hire in order to combat labor informality in a number of sectors, not just the ports.
Our situation is made worse by the proliferation of private port authorities. We have at least five now…there’s no control over this expansion, and we ask: How can they allow more ports to be built when they can’t even manage to protect basic labor rights of their workers? If they’re going to build more ports, let’s look first at working conditions. And it’s not only affected us as workers, but as a community. With this issue of port expansion they’re building warehouses everywhere and we think this is related to the “relocation” of people that live in waterfront neighborhoods. We don’t see any mechanisms that guarantee respect for us as workers or as a community.”Danelly Bantu, a community organizer with Black Community Processes (PCN) in Buenaventura, echoed concerns regarding the social, cultural and community impacts of Free Trade on Buenaventura.“The issue isn’t just labor rights; it’s also about our fundamental rights to identity, land, organizing and participating in our communities.
Port expansion is the main cause of territorial displacement, and it’s carried out in different ways. For example, there’s some neighborhoods that were built entirely by the residents, who’ve lived there for more than 80 years, and all of a sudden overnight someone claiming to be the owner of that land appears with false papers, everything fabricated, saying they are the real owners of that neighborhood—and it turns out that the neighborhood is within the areas the government has identified in their studies as areas for port expansion, completely ignoring the community already there. In the waterfront area that includes the Neighborhoods Won from the Sea, they want to build a touristic boardwalk. It’s a touristic complement to large port companies that want all their new investors from China, Ecuador, Panama to have tourist destinations to visit, and so all the people that live along the water need to leave.
[The government] is claiming that the area is high risk [for tsunamis and natural disasters], but we ask, how is it that the area is high-risk for the people that have lived there for more than 150 years, but not for the large hotels and condos that they’re projecting to build there? So we know it’s just an excuse to displace people to make room for megaprojects, and this is happening everywhere: all over the island and the mainland, and we don’t know where we’re going to live. Land is a huge issue here and we don’t have anywhere to go, because wherever [port companies] want to store a container the people there have to leave.”