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San Jose, Buenaventura: Ground zero for Free Trade in Colombia

By Chelsey Dyer, WfP Southeast Board

The Port of Bueanventura. Photo credit: Chelsea Dyer

The houses surrounding me were small wooden structures, built by the hands of the community members who settled in them and developed their lives within their walls. The taste of salt tickled my lips. Wind from the nearby ocean struggled to embrace me in its cooling waves, but the heat of the day and emotion refused to lift. I trod carefully, absorbing the uniqueness and beauty of my surroundings. Occasionally my feet would stumble beneath me, tripping over the shell laden ground as I struggled to comprehend stories of murder, grief, and hope. I was in San Jose, or Sanyu- a small community in the port city of Buenaventura, Colombia- meeting with community members as part of a Witness for Peace Delegation. On this day I heard about how the municipal government was threatening to relocate this community to make way for a boardwalk, and for a brief moment, I entered into the daily reality of tension and frustration of free trade. A reality of homes being bulldozed for tourism and of heritage being forsaken for profit. A reality that residents of San Jose could not escape.

There were individuals whose families had lived in the community since the dawn of its existence, families who had moved there after being displaced from their former homes, and criminals who sought to keep them all under their reign of power and fear. All were irreversibly affected by the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Here, in the daily lives of residents Free Trade was not about pesos, or dollars, or profit. Free trade was fear. It was insecurity. It was volatility.

San Jose is one of many neighborhoods affected by free trade in Buenaventura, a bustling city that contains Colombia’s largest port and moves about 60% of the nation’s imports and exports. In addition to international port commerce, the majority of Buenaventura’s local economy depends on the ocean, and the local and national governments are increasingly looking to take advantage of the city’s coastal location to develop bigger and more ambitious tourism projects, seeming to pay more attention to attracting foreigners than serving the needs of citizens. In 2012, Colombia and the United States implemented an Free Trade Agreement (FTA) agreement) that immediately eliminated 80% of tariffs on exported goods. Businesses promised that this free market policy would maximize profits, increase employment and spur economic growth. Communities like San Jose were expressly excluded from the official dialogue, a dialogue that never addressed the reality that such communities would be unlikely to share in this supposed growth.

Left: Traditional fishing boats used by San Jose residents. Right: The community of San Jose contrasted with the encroaching high rises behind them. Photo credit: Chelsea Dyer

San Jose community members still catch fish in their traditional long boats. They harvest mussels, using the meat for sustenance and the shells to craft the floors of their homes. The ocean is more than just an economy. It is a livelihood, a culture, and a mechanism of autonomy and sustainability for the people. Yet, with support from the national government, Buenaventura’s municipal government is in the process of forcibly relocating the community to a new neighborhood of cheap, prefabricated houses that sit miles away from the sea. No one consulted San Jose community members about this decision. No one informed them ofother economic opportunities. There are no schools, health clinics or other social services in their new, isolated neighborhood. A community that has survived off of the ocean for more than 70 years is being moved to a compound far from their existing economy, community, and heritage.

With voices silenced, muted by big business and choked with fear, the hope of Buenaventura residents still endures, but violence in the city continues to increase. The situation in Buenaventura supports the idea that when people have no access to viable alternative economic opportunities, they often turn to those that involve violence.

This March, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered an additional 380 policemen and 400 marines to Buenaventura to help combat the violence. Yet, as a recent report by the Interchurch Commission on Justice and Peace stated, “When civilians sought help from the military to prevent the paramilitaries from killing a neighbor, the officers told them that ‘we can’t do anything, our job is to protect wealth.’” Community leaders have repeatedly stated that they do not want more boots on the ground or weapons in Buenaventura, but rather that security will come from investment in their city to create jobs, economic opportunities and thriving communities. According to reports in the press, Buenaventura generates about $2 million USD in tax revenue for Colombia, but only about $150,000 of that money is reinvested in the city, and none of that trickles down to neighborhoods like Sanyu or port workers and their families. After selling Free Trade on false pretenses, the government’s strategy has been to send more troops into what is already Colombia’s most militarized city and displace those who are in the way of plans for “development”. More guns, more violence, more fear. And more displacement to keep the problems of the city “out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” altering the aesthetics of the problem while ignoring the root cause.


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