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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

AfroColombians and Free Trade

David Bacon at Znet, has an article up entitled: AfroColombians oppose Free Trade Agreement.

The picture Bacon paints, describing the life of a woman named Valencia, is a familiar one for students of the annals of free trade:

As hard as mining and farming are, people like Valencia are fighting to stay. Today, though, the threat to Palo Blanco's existence doesn't come only from poverty. The Anglo American Corporation plans to pulverize the mountain where Valencia and her community mine and extract the gold using industrial methods that will leave behind huge piles of tailings and pits filled with cyanide residue. If the project is allowed to proceed, Palo Blanco residents will lose their small diggings and the income they gain from them. Pollution will make it even harder to farm. The town might become just a memory.

"Development" projects like this one are backed by the Colombian government and pushed by the United States and international financial institutions. Later this spring the US Congress is expected to debate a free trade treaty that President George Bush has already signed with Colombia. Like all such agreements, it will create more favorable investment conditions for US corporations and banks, by removing legal protections for the land inhabited by AfroColombian and indigenous communities, cutting the public budget for social services, and privatizing public enterprises like electricity. The North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, for instance, allowed subsidized US corn producers to flood the Mexican market, making it impossible for many small farmers to compete.

You can be sure that when this free trade treaty comes before Congress that its backers will do all they can to cover over stories like Valencia's, in part, by pointing to web pages like this one. Public relations are a powerful tool that both sides of the debate muster. However, history has shown that the powers that be on both sides of the aisle didn't get to where they are today by caring over much about towns like Palo Blanco. Pulverizing hills, huge piles of tailings and pits filled with the residue of cyanide: the image David Bacon paints of Palo Blanco's possible future is not a pretty picture. Either this kind of mining will be allowed under this treaty's provisions, or not, and that's the point.

Congress has a chance to shape this reality by getting explicit about exactly what environmental standards the treaty will contain. For an agreement that's supposedly already on the table, that is not so easy as it seems. Good luck finding anything specific in this article. Carl Pope has this summary at the Huffington Post that is slightly more explicit (noting a ban on over-logging Mahogany in Peru) but, to be frank, nothing that I've read provides any clear information on these environmental questions, yet.

Valencia will be waiting for the answer.



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