Globalization has selected its next victim. In July, 2012, Colombia signed a free trade agreement with the United States. Fuelled by the desire to “develop” economically, i.e.: have access to the amenities and material goods of the first world, the initial reaction was quite positive. Citizens flocked to multinational brands like GAP and many excitedly awaited the promise of the arrival of Starbucks. On August 1, of this year, the free trade agreement with the European Union also came into effect.
Since signing the free trade agreement, imports from the US to Colombia have increased by about 70%, according to Counterpunch, “In 2011, Colombia imported 5,000 tons of rice from the US. In the year after the fta came in, 98,000 tons were imported.”
Shortly after the agreement was signed, the influx of multinational corporations began; Starbucks and GAP arrived, of course, but also Monsanto, which already had a place in Colombia’s heart as the manufacturer of Round-Up Ultra a pesticide used for eradicating illegal coca crops in the countryside as part of the largely failed unilateral attempt at controlling the international drug trade, called Plan Colombia. (Besides spraying poison on crops, rivers, streams and villages, Plan Colombia also involved US payments of millions of dollars in military aid to a government linked to various crimes against humanity, paramilitary groups, widespread human displacement, the murders of journalists, union-leaders and students, and the famous False Positives scandal, where innocent people were kidnapped, assassinated and buried in mass graves and passed off as captured guerilla fighters, in order to increase quotas.)
The influx of these multinational agro-companies and the competitive North American market into Colombia has driven the price of milk, potatoes, onions, coffee and grains down drastically. Despite subsidies from the government, which were awarded to coffee-growers last year after a series of protests from the Colombian Coffee-Growers’ Guild, farmers are unable to make ends meet. What’s more, farmers are being penalized, even facing jail time, for undergoing the traditional agricultural practice of saving seeds, violating Monsanto’s patent laws, which genetically modifies grains to make them resistant to the toxic pesticides that will be sprayed on food and, of course, eventually ingested by humans.
In response to the unfairness, farmers began to take to the streets, sparking a series of protests, which have now taken over the country. At first, President Juan Manuel Santos (previous defence minister under the violator of human rights, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, and responsible for the famous PR stunt-release of captive Ingrid Betancourt from the hands of the FARC), denied the existence of the strikes. Now, he is attempting to begin negotiations with farmers as large populated districts, such as Bogota, begin to feel the effects of this widespread agricultural strike and impending food shortage. And, of course, it wouldn’t be the Colombian right-wing government without at least one person attempting to blame the left-wing guerilla group, the FARC, at some point.
The international media has largely ignored this issue, besides reporting on the social unrest with focus on isolated incidences of violence and clashes with police, failing to address the reasons behind the uprising.
The strikes highlight the injustice and misfortune that has befallen this otherwise complacent country, and the negative and rapid effects of free trade and globalization on the health of a country’s food production. With the influx of cheaper, US-subsidized grains and milk, and the falling price of coffee, Colombian farmers are unable to keep up.
Seeing Colombia succumb to the tyranny of giant food corporations such as Monsanto, a company with abysmal human rights and health records, is an embittering experience. Throughout the years I lived in Colombia, I noticed that the societal ethos displayed a general disregard towards standing up for the marginalized in favour of nurturing the desire to become accepted on the international stage, failing to recognize that “development” is more than the ability to buy Nike shoes, but an evolving social consciousness that involves standing up for the rights of oppressed groups and minorities. I hope that the Colombian people manage to take back a little bit of what’s theirs, hopefully going the way of Peru and banning Monsanto and other corporations who don’t have the interests of the people, their health or the environment (or anything besides profits, for that matter) in mind.