Colombia: How “Free” Trade Agreements Threaten Family Farms

by Nils Dybvig

Traveling in a motorized canoe with a dozen farmers returning from registering their land titles, I chat with Jose Manuel,* a farmer in his early thirties.  He grew up working hard and saving to buy 20 acres of land in his community.  The corn, vegetables and fruit trees from that land provide food and income for his family of five.

“Are there small farmers where you’re from?” Jose Manuel asks.  I explain that in the 1980s many small farms in the United States went bankrupt.  Today, most farms are hundreds or even thousands of acres.  The family farm has all but died out.

If the U.S. passes the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia, Jose Manuel’s way of life will be threatened too.  The agreement will require Colombia to open its markets to millions of tons of U.S. corn, rice, and wheat, sold at prices below the cost of production thanks to agricultural subsidies.  This influx will further depress the prices of food crops, and will likely result in Colombia importing most of its food.

In exchange, the U.S. will give “favored nation” status to Colombian agricultural products such as cut flowers, tropical fruits, and palm oil.  Unfortunately, large-scale agribusinesses, not small farmers, will grow this export-oriented produce, because producing and marketing crops internationally requires large capital investments.

When small farmers like Jose Manuel can no longer make a living growing food crops, they may be forced to sell their land (at bargain prices) to larger landowners who will consolidate their holdings and convert the land to the large-scale production of palm oil or bananas, crops favored under the FTA.  The agribusiness firms will provide many fewer jobs per acre, forcing most small farmers off the land.

President Bush says the FTA will provide economic development for Colombia and therefore make drug trafficking and joining the guerrillas less attractive.  Unfortunately, experience with Free Trade Agreements in other countries shows that a sharp economic downturn is more likely to occur in the rural, less developed areas of the country.  And these are precisely the areas that produce coca and where guerilla groups recruit most of their soldiers.  The FTA with Colombia, instead of making the country more stable, would increase economic inequalities already fueling the guerrilla struggle, and force more farmers to turn to illicit crops to support themselves and their families.

Both the U.S. Congress and Canada’s Parliament are likely to make decisions about free trade agreements with Colombia in the next year.  To protect the life and livelihood of Jose Manuel and thousands of other small farmers like him, we ask our U.S. and Canadian readers to let their representatives know that you favor “fair” trade that supports small farmers and communities, not “free” trade.

* not his real name