Analysis of how US-Colombia FTA has harmed Black communities in Buenaventura

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Peace Brigades International in Buenaventura.

Thomas Power and Cruz Bonlarron Martínez have written this analysis on how free trade has harmed Black communities in Colombia.

This analysis is helpful when reflecting on the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement that came into force in August 2011.

Key excerpts from their article published by Aljazeera include:

In 2013, US Vice President Joe Biden visited Colombia and met with then-President Juan Manuel Santos to cement ties between the two countries.

Just a year before, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) had been ratified between the two which proponents held would be beneficial for both. But, eight years on, social leaders, economists, and leaders of Afro-Colombian semi-autonomous community councils question if the US-Colombian FTA really made sense for everyone.

Wealth generated not extended to port workers

Despite the National Infrastructure Agency’s large port concessions to handle the increased trade – and Afro-Colombians frequently providing the low-cost labour for such port expansions – those living in and around the port city of Buenaventura have not shared in the wealth that increased trade has produced.

Many without clean drinking water

As part of this year’s deadly, weeks-long National Strike in protest against austerity measures that would have reduced fiscal deficits by taxing the poor and middle class, residents of Buenaventura prevented cargo from entering the country, demanding better living conditions for its 415,000 inhabitants – many of whom have no running water – and more funding for the violence-ridden city.

Evictions from collective lands to accommodate port expansion

Colombian human rights advocate Enrique Chimonja sees the continuing paramilitary group activity as a strategy by private companies to evict people living on their collective lands in order to accommodate port expansion required not only by the free-trade agreement with the US but also by the 16 other FTAs Colombia has signed.

Right to collective land ownership undermined

Law 70 granted Black communities on Colombia’s Pacific coast the right to collective ownership of lands they have already occupied for more than 300 years. It formalised their right to maintain their unique lifestyle and culture while aiming to promote economic and social development.

[But] Law 70 and the community councils in the rural areas near Buenaventura stand in tension with the policy of economic opening-up, which has been state policy since the late 1980s. This is marked by low tariffs, a reduction in state subsidies and privatisation.

Privatization of port facilities

Buenaventura was an early example of these new economic policies when Colombian President Cesar Gaviria privatised the state-run port, Colpuertos, in 1994, and the new Sociedad Portuaria de Buenaventura changed its technical capacities to make port activities more capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive.

Reduction in the port’s workforce

The new, private owners introduced “labour flexibility” measures. These changes reduced the labour force from 10,000 in 1990 to 4,200 in 1996, and the average salary of a port worker fell by 70 percent. Furthermore, the private port often brought workers from outside Buenaventura for higher-wage jobs, creating a separation between the private port and the community living in Buenaventura.

Trade deficit

Proponents held that the free-trade agreement would increase Colombian exports and access to international markets, resulting in economic growth for the country as a whole.

Despite these promises, since 2012, Colombia has gone from a trade surplus to a trade deficit, and its dependence on primary material exports – oil, coal, coffee, bananas – has increased. The FTA [also] lowered tariffs on imported goods, making them cheaper than those produced domestically.

More displacement of people as the port expands

As a result of the FTAs, Buenaventura has seen a 42-percent growth in international trade during the decade of 2010 to 2020.

It has also undergone a number of port expansions including a $200m mega-project, the Buenaventura Containers Terminal (TC Buen), which has also displaced people from surrounding neighbourhoods to make way for construction.

Needs of the port prioritized over needs of people

Snyder Rivera, an economist with the Colombian organisation Cedetrabajo, which monitors the implementation of free-trade agreements, says advanced port logistics have been prioritised over the needs of the people living collectively in and around Buenaventura.

María Miyela Riascos, a community leader in Buenaventura, also believes that international trade has been prioritised over people. “I’ve been to the port of Vancouver and its technology and functioning is comparable with Buenaventura, Buenaventura has nothing to be jealous of. The difference is how the people live in Vancouver and how people live in Buenaventura, there, there is a difference,” she says.

Economic interests profit, Afro-Colombians displaced

Ultimately, Riascos says, the government and powerful international economic interests have only benefitted from the displacement of Afro-Colombian people from their traditional lands.

To read the full analysis by Thomas Power and Cruz Bonlarron Martínez, go to How free trade has harmed Colombia’s Black communities.

Further reading

Marking the 10th anniversary of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Concerns of PBI-Colombia accompanied organizations raised in Annual Report on Canada-Colombia free trade agreement

PBI-Canada asked (without success) that the Annual Report Pursuant to the Agreement Concerning Annual Reports on Human Rights and Free Trade between Canada and the Republic of Colombia for fiscal year 2020:

1- specify the total amount of Canadian imports/exports that were transported through the port in Buenaventura in 2020.

2- document the number of people killed and displaced in in Buenaventura in 2020.

3- acknowledge the gendered impact of displacement in Buenaventura in 2020.

4- acknowledge the impacts of the port on the majority Afro-descendant/Black population of Buenaventura.

5- affirm the importance of the continued participation of the Canadian Embassy in verification missions to Buenaventura.

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