free trade with colombia the price of progress

When Canada's Parliament collapsed last month, an historic agreement was put on hold.

When Canada’s Parliament collapsed last month, an historic agreement was put on hold. The free trade deal hammered out between Prime Minister Harper and Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia, was complete in all but the final detail, an exchange of formal notes. With Harper back in power it seems likely that the deal will soon be completed.

When the notes are signed, it will represent a great moment in Colombian history, its first trade deal with a major economic power. It’s common in such cases for others to follow – soon Colombia can expect to be partnered with the US and the European Union. For some Colombians, prosperity is on the horizon, ready to roll in. For others though, the news is not so good.

Small economies that cut free trade deals with large ones commonly have two things to place on the table: cheap labour and cheap resources. The labourers who supply the cheap labour are considered to be beneficiaries of the deal because, however poorly paid, they have jobs where no jobs were before. In many cases the chance to become cheap labour is the only chance they have, because they have been displaced from their land to make room for mineral extraction.

Such is the case in Colombia, and the displacement is a particularly brutal one. Between 1985 and 2010 more than five million Colombians were forced to flee their homes. Today, Colombia has more displaced persons than any other country in the world. The government has blamed this mass displacement on the work of communist guerillas, and on the counterinsurgency campaign to get rid of same, but the evidence suggests another factor is at play.

Most of the displaced persons in Colombia were once involved in small-scale agriculture on land that is now occupied by mines, or by giant palm-oil plantations. Whether they were evicted by rebels or by government forces, the effect is the same: they and their land have become part of the new economy. Millions of former peasants are now living marginalized lives in shanty towns, waiting for the opportunity to become cheap labour, while the land they once farmed provides cheap food for export.

The benefits to the Canadian economy are equally clear. Canadian consumers will have yet another source of cheap agricultural products, pushing more Canadian farmers to the wall, and our companies will have a great new place to export manufacturing jobs. If we stay the course on trade deals such as these, eventually we will have our own displaced farmers and our own shanty towns, and we won’t have to go so far to look for cheap labour.

With so many benefits attached to the new economy in Colombia, you would think people would jump at the chance to participate. A simple eviction notice and a map showing the walking trail to the nearest shanty towns ought to suffice to send any right-thinking peasant dancing off to join the cheap labour force, but sadly such is not the manner in which mass evictions are achieved.

Recalcitrant farmers, unaware of the shining place that awaits them in the prosperous future, have resisted being turfed from their land, and it has been necessary to resort to stronger measures to shift them. Both government and rebel forces have employed massacres, targeted assassinations, destruction of homes and a variety of terror tactics to promote the new economy.

If there’s one thing this volatile situation needs to push it to the flash point, it’s the infusion of large sums of Canadian money. Even the promise of free trade with Canada moves reconstruction along, creating an added incentive to clear land and build shanty towns in preparation for the upcoming bonanza of jobs.

For three decades now a succession of Canadian governments have aggressively pursued free trade deals as the road to prosperity. So far, it seems to be working. The world has more and more displaced persons waiting to become cheap labour, and Canada has more millionaires and billionaires than ever before. True, it’s a road littered with mangled bodies, but so are all the great roads of history. Such is the price of progress.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.