CIP has mostly stayed out of the debate over the free-trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. Our longtime focus on security, conflict resolution and human rights doesn’t leave us well-equipped to debate issues like intellectual-property provisions, side agreements, â€œfast trackâ€ expiration, â€œchicken hindquarters,â€ and the like.
While accompanying Colombian opposition Senator Gustavo Petro during his March 5-9 trip to Washington, though, we heard him make an anti-FTA argument that was new to us, sounded plausible, and had strong regional security implications.
Sen. Petro spent little time discussing the dangerous climate that faces labor organizers in Colombia, which is the argument heard most frequently from the free-trade agreement’s opponents in the U.S. Congress. Instead, borrowing from the work of Colombian economist Luis Jorge Garay, Petro contended that the trade agreement will greatly benefit Colombia’s narcotraffickers.
The argument goes like this:
1. The FTA will devastate Colombian farmers who depend on crops that can be harvested two or more times per year, such as corn, rice, barley and cereals. According to Petro, about 90 percent of the farmers who grow these crops have small or medium-sized landholdings. They will be unable to compete with the cheaper produce of subsidized U.S. agribusiness.
2. The FTA will benefit other Colombian agricultural products, however: what Petro called â€œdelayed yieldâ€ crops (tardÃo rendimiento). That is, products that take several years – in some cases, as many as 10 to 15 years – before they begin to yield a harvest. Such crops include timber, African oil palm, rubber, cacao, and many fruit trees.
3. Growing these â€œdelayed yieldâ€ crops requires that farmers meet two conditions. First, they must have large landholdings; five acres of forest simply won’t provide enough timber to feed a family. Second, the farmer must have lots of â€œliquidityâ€ – access to cash on which to live while waiting years for his â€œdelayed-yieldâ€ crops to begin making a profit.
4. Who in Colombia, Petro asked, has both large landholdings and lots of cash? â€œThey have a name in Colombia,â€ the senator said. â€œThe narcotraffickers.â€
Colombia’s drug lords have bought enormous amounts of land over the past thirty years; it has been a preferred way to launder money. This concentration of land in the hands of narcotraffickers (with sales often pressured by paramilitaries) has caused what many analysts call a â€œreverse land reformâ€ in Colombia’s countryside. Petro cited a 2002 Colombian government study (cited here [PDF] by a UN official) that found 61.2 percent of the country’s cultivable land in the hands of 0.4 percent of landholders – that is, 10,000 people. Petro contends that many of these 10,000 – perhaps a majority – are either narcotraffickers or â€œtestaferros,â€ people whom the drug lords pay to allow their names to be used on land titles.
5. According to Petro, the FTA would benefit the drug lords in two ways. First, by creating a big market for the â€œdelayed yieldâ€ crops planted on their large landholdings. And second, by guaranteeing plenty of cocaine production, since smallholding farmers driven out of business by U.S. competition will be tempted to choose a more profitable crop that can be harvested several times per year: coca.
Senator Petro’s agricultural argument against the free-trade agreement is alarming and compelling. From the standpoint of rural political economy, though, does it make sense? How great is the risk that this might really happen – that the drug lords would indeed be big winners? If the risk is significant, how can the FTA be altered to address it?
Again, this is not our area of expertise. We would welcome comments from more knowledgeable readers.