Free Trade with Colombia

by Dawn Paley 

Originally published in Edmonton’s Vue Weekly, 

When Minister of International Trade Stockwell Day signed the Canada- Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in Peru on November 21, it was a happy day for Canada’s oil and gas sector, but the deal was promoted instead as a landmark for human rights and democracy in Colombia. 

“Deepening both economic and political engagement between our countries is the best way Canadians can support the citizens of Colombia in their efforts to create a safer and more prosperous democracy,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the signing ceremony.The Canada-Colombia FTA was negotiated in secret, and the texts of the deal have yet to be made available to the public. 

As Day’s pen slid across paper in Peru, a massive mobilization of popular movements had taken over the central plaza in Colombia’s capital. The protests in Bogotá were the culmination of over six weeks of demonstrations across the country, known as a Minga, spearheaded by indigenous peoples. Crystal clear among the demands of the tens of thousands mobilizing in Bogotá was the immediate end to all Free Trade Agreements and the economic system these deals represent. 

“Free Trade Agreements are never for the benefit of the people,” says Rafael Coicué, a Nasa leader from Cauca, in southwest Colombia, who participated in the Minga. “These agreements are shaped by economic interests at the cost of life and sovereignty.” Both the US and Canadian governments have now signed the FTA agreement, but neither one has yet ratified the deal. According to Foreign Affairs Canada, bilateral trade with Colombia in 2007 totaled $1.14 billion, making it the fourth most important destination for Canadian trade in Latin America. Along with select exporters, Canada’s extractive industries are among the sectors that could cash in on a free trade agreement with Colombia. 

Enbridge Pipeline Share 

More than 20 oil and gas companies from Alberta are currently active in Colombia, including Nexen, Enbridge and Petrominerales. Enbridge owns 24.7 per cent of Oleoducto Central SA (OCENSA), the company that controls the largest pipeline system in Colombia. The outstanding portion of OCENSA is owned by Ecopetrol (Colombia’s national oil company), TOTAL, BP and Triton Pipeline Colombia.

Enbridge has been involved in the project since 1994, and today is responsible for operations along Colombia’s largest pipeline. Enbridge runs a Corporate Social Responsibility campaign, but according to the company’s own power point presentation, they’re “prepared for some NGO questioning,” relating to their operations in Colombia. There are 17 military bases and more than 1400 soldiers, airmen and marines stationed near the 820 km long pipeline. Enbridge claims that the constitution of Colombia requires them to have military personnel guarding their operations. Colombia’s military has recently come under international scrutiny because of the “false positives” scandal, where civilians killed by the army were dressed up to appear like guerrillas. 

In 1998, the OCENSA pipeline was bombed by the National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerrilla group active in Colombia’s northeast. Seventy- one people were killed and many hundreds were wounded in the blast. Amnesty International condemned the blasts as a “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” and later revealed OCENSA was transferring arms to the XIV Brigade of the Colombian army, as well as employing a private security company whose operations aggravated the human rights situation for civilians living in the area near the pipeline. “The relation with Israeli private security companies is potentially of concern given that in the past such companies have provided mercenaries, of Israeli and British and German nationality, to train paramilitary organizations operating under the control of the XIV Brigade,” said Amnesty International. Paramilitary activity along the OCENSA pipeline led to an eventual payout of victims by BP, which was then operating the pipeline. BP now carries out oil production and exploration in Colombia, and maintains a smaller stake in the OCENSA pipeline. 

Nexen, for its part, has a nonoperational stake in oil production in Colombia. “It is not a focus area for us and we have about eight to ten people in the country,” wrote Carla Yuill, Nexen’s Manager of Corporate Communications, in an email to Vue. 

John Wright is the president and CEO of Petrobank, which has operations spanning BC (locally opposed coalbed methane near Princeton), Alberta and Saskatchewan, and Petrominerales, which produces oil in the Llanos area of Colombia. Their operations net about 20,000 barrels daily and employ upwards of 130 people, plus contractors. Wright has been working in Colombia since 1992, and he’s yet to come across any of the problems others have experienced in Colombia. “You find you’ll have exactly the same security issues you’d have in parts of Miami, or certainly in places like Caracas, or probably in a place like Lagos,” he says. The day before Wright talked to Vue, 10 people were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Meta, one of the departments where Petrominerales is active. Nonetheless, according to Wright, “It’s very calm where we are.” 

As Clean as Alberta 

“Colombia is one of the most transparent places on earth to do business, it’s as clean as Alberta when it comes to the oil industry,” says Wright. “We’re huge supporters of [the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement]. I think Canada has an enormous role to play, we can show the world how you can do things with rational regulations, rational oversight and transparent business practices, and Colombia fits into that mould,” Wright told Vue. 

However not everyone agrees with Wright’s perspective. Gustavo Triana, the second vice-president of the Colombian United Workers Federation and a former Secretary of the Energy & Mining Sector, says that, in relation to the oil and gas sector in Colombia, “What the Free Trade Agreements do is…stipulate that the services and engineering that is today done by [Colombian] nationals will be instead done by foreigners, by bringing in firms and technicians that displace ours, and removing national control mechanisms.” 

Resistance to the FTA goes beyond popular movements and trade unionists in Colombia. After months of hearings on the agreement, the Canadian Standing Committee on International Trade issued its report, in which it recommended an FTA with Colombia not be signed. “The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada maintain close ties with Colombia without signing a free trade agreement until …the Colombian government shows a more constructive attitude to human rights groups in the country,” reads the report.

Workers Beware 

 Among the strongest voices of opposition against free trade agreement in North America are labour, especially the AFL-CIO in the US, and the Canadian Labour Congress north of the border. Colombia is the world’s most dangerous place to be a trade unionist. Since 1996, Colombia’s National Trade Union School (ENS) has recorded the assassinations of 2,690 trade unionists. According to Triana, these numbers include 135 workers in the oil and gas sector. ENS numbers for 2008 show that last year, 46 trade union members were assassinated, 157 were threatened, 15 were arbitrarily detained, 13 taken hostage and four were “disappeared.” 

In addition to being a dangerous place for trade unionists, Colombia is home to a growing population of over four million internally displaced people, and plays host to irregular armed groups ranging from the FARC and ELN to paramilitary groups. Colombia is the hemisphere’s largest recipient of “aid” money from United States through Plan Colombia, most of which goes towards military spending. 

“It is not true that terror is an enemy of development of capital in Colombia, in fact, the opposite is true: there is terror so that transnational corporate and Canadian capital can develop their interests, because terror creates cheap access to the means of exploitation and production,” says Manuel Rozental, a Colombian surgeon who has lived in Canada. 

It is expected that the Canada- Colombia Free Trade Agreement will be tabled in Parliament before the spring. Whether or not Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will direct the Liberals to vote against the deal is unknown.


Dawn Paley is a contributing editor with the Dominion, a grassroots national newspaper. She visited Colombia in December 2008 with support from the Canadian Labour Congress and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. 

[From WS March/April 2009]

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