Trade and Development in Colombia: Through a Human Rights Lens

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Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund
At Lutheran World Relief’s Forum on “Conflict, Trade and Development in Colombia”
Colombia’s conflict has led to more than 3.8 million people fleeing their homes from violence in recent years, and has caught the civilian population in the crossfire. Given this context, policymakers and donors should ask the following questions as they make decisions about rural development projects or trade agreements with Colombia. This may seem obvious, but too often trade and development decisions are not examined in a “human rights and conflict-resolution” light.
Some key questions for any major development or trade decision in Colombia today are:
  • How will it affect human rights?
  • Will it help to reduce tensions or aggravate the conflict?
  • How will it affect the rural population living in poverty in the conflict zones?
  • How will it affect the livelihoods of farmers susceptible to growing coca and poppy? Will it undercut their food crops, leading them to shift towards or revert to illicit drug production, or become more vulnerable to recruitment by guerrilla, paramilitary or other illegal groups?
  • What guarantees are included to ensure this project does not favor criminal networks?
  • How will it benefit or harm the population—rural, poor, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, internally displaced—already most victimized by the conflict?
  • We can not assume that any development project or trade agreement, even if it looks to have an overall positive economic impact, will necessarily ease the conflict. We have to examine the different impacts on particular sectors and geographic regions.
To take the most controversial first…
The pending free trade agreement. Even the most vehemently pro-free trade advocate will acknowledge that some sectors may suffer impacts from trade agreements while other sectors benefit. Which sectors are least likely to benefit from the Colombian FTA, at least initially? A good guess would be, areas of the country without the infrastructure for successful exporting, and sectors of the population least prepared to take advantage of opportunities to export crops and goods favored by a trade agreement—and in particular, small farmers whose crops will not be able to compete domestically with U.S. exports. And these potential losers are likely to be located in Colombia’s conflict zones, and be the population already most victimized by the war, and most likely to be pressed into service by illegal armed groups or lured into illicit drug production.
After pouring so much energy and money into counternarcotics efforts in Colombia, including into the controversial aerial spraying program—have the U.S. and Colombian governments really considered carefully the potential impact the FTA would have on illegal drug production in the conflict zones?
And then there is the question of labor rights. Colombia is not by coincidence the country where more trade unionists are killed than in the rest of the world combined. Often trade unionists are targeted by those who believe trade union activity is illegitimate, by those who equate organizing with insurgency. In some cases, members of the army and security agency have collaborated directly in anti-union violence. Because of this climate, trade negotiations must be linked to measurable improvements in respect for labor rights, reduction in anti-union threats and violence, and an end to impunity in such cases.
Development projects. Those preparing development projects obviously should consider projects aimed at improving livelihoods in Colombia’s conflict zones. Development projects, designed in careful consultation with beneficiaries, should be benefit the population most victimized. This would include Colombia’s enormous internally displaced population, as well as Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other population living in the conflict zones.
But beyond this general aim, the following human rights guarantees would be helpful:
  • Ensure that the project not be carried out on land obtained by violence. Substantial numbers of the over 30,000 paramilitaries demobilized still possess the land they stole by violenceyet a serious discussion of return of land to the displaced has yet to take place in Colombia. As paramilitary leaders demobilize under the Justice and Peace law, which in theory obligates them to disclose their illegally gotten gains, including land, most are turning out to be mysteriously impoverished. Little is being turned over to the national reparations commission. The Colombian government should revoke benefits for paramilitary leaders who refuse to disclose their assets, especially land, and should take steps to identify stolen land and plan for voluntary, safe returns where desired by internally displaced persons. But in the meantime, international donors should avoid investing in land obtained by violence. And this is not just a matter of checking title, since many titles have been obtained through threats and corruption. Special attention should be paid to protecting collective lands of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.
  • Ensure that the project not largely benefit criminal networks. This seems obvious, but is trickier than it appears. Paramilitary or criminal networks are reported to have taken over health sector activities in certain areas, for example. Threats and violence have often been alleged to have accompanied the expansion of African palm plantations, used for biofuel. Where there is a “gold rush” factor, as in biofuel or extractive industries, those seeking to dominate the business have all too often turned to violence to reach their goals. Even otherwise legitimate businesses may be making payoffs to guerrilla or paramilitary groups that contribute to violence.
  • Ensure that any industry or agroindustry invested in or supported respects labor rights, does not collude with illegal armed actors in anti-union violence, and upholds freedom of association.
  • Avoid resorting to “militarized development.” The expansion of Colombia’s civilian government institutions into conflict zones is urgently needed. Funding militarized development, with civic action activities carried out by the army or military-led development projects, may be tempting where donors are concerned about security risks. But this is not a healthy development strategy, and will not win the support of the civilian population in the conflict zones in the way that can be accomplished by civilian-led development projects with community consultation.

Given the complex scenario of violence in the countryside, and in particular the reports of paramilitary or mafia-like ex-paramilitary networks increasing their control over local economic activities and political institutions, donors like USAID should ensure that even rural development contractors and subcontractors are fully briefed on the local human rights situation in the areas they consider for projects.

All of these caveats do not mean the international community shouldn’t provide aid and invest in development projects in Colombia. To the contrary. The United States in particular has an obligation to assist Colombia, given that our demand for illegal drugs helps to fuel their violence. The U.S. Congress’s increased interest in rural development programs in Colombia takes the U.S. aid program in a more promising direction. The right kind of rural investment—participatory and aimed at the population victimized by the conflict—is absolutely central to help resolve the conflict and stem the production of illegal drugs. However, the context of violence means that major trade or development decisions in Colombia must be viewed through this human rights and conflict-resolution lens.