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The Losers in the Andean Free Trade Agreement

By Javier Ponce*

The free trade treaty being negotiated with the United States threatens 50 percent of Ecuador's small farmers. The political instability in this country -- with former president Lucio Gutiérrez seeking asylum in Brazil -- is complicating finalization of the agreement.

QUITO - When a defender of free trade agreements begins to feel surrounded, he generally responds -- imperturbable -- that in every process there will be losers.

I agree, when the laws of the market are involved, there are risks.

It's just that when three Andean countries -- Colombia, Ecuador and Peru -- begin to live under the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, the losers will be those who have always lost wherever the market has appeared: the peasant farmers, or 'campesinos'.

Are they so few that the euphoria of ''free trade'' reduces their presence? Are they many, perhaps?

We'll say, for example in the case of Ecuador, that they are a sector that on a daily basis ensure the production of basic foods and constitute the productive base of all Andean culture. And they are located, for the most part, in the sector where the losses resulting from the FTA are going to be greatest: rice, potatoes, beans, meat, cheese, and especially maize.

Meanwhile, the greatest economic potential of the FTA lies in the products controlled by the big agricultural corporations: banana, flowers, broccoli, and palm hearts.

The treaty, as such, is based on the maximum inequality existing in the distribution of land in Ecuador.

Because the FTA, as in the cyclical ''exits'' from the economic or financial crises in our countries, has the curious characteristic of provoking spikes in the race for inequality. That is, the more we advance, the more unjust we are.

What does the state that negotiates the FTA have to offer the traditional peasant farmers, the subsistence growers? Nothing. A reason to emigrate, perhaps.

And these lines are not written in the context of a Manichean mirage: the FTA as the way to heaven or as unavoidable doom. They simply respond to the assertion that the supposed virtues of the treaty, which occupy nearly the entire debate scenario, hide the wounds that they would cause in those who are already victims of deep inequalities.

And to the extent that they are hidden, there is not even the least national effort to confront them with policy. There lies the perversity in the triumphalist rhetoric of the discourse.

A study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), released earlier this year, states that the ''agricultural sector of Ecuador loses in any scenario,'' including one in which the United States cuts subsidies to its own farmers.

ECLAC says 46 percent of agricultural production units corresponding to the subsistence farming sector are found in the sector threatened by the consequences of the FTA.

That is, 50 percent of the farmers who are living below the poverty line are under threat, among them, a majority are small farms that are run by women.

ECLAC cites another aggravating factor: what happens in terms of employment in the competitive agricultural sector would not be enough to counteract the unemployment that would arise in the traditional and subsistence farming sectors.

Finally, the U.N. regional agency underscores something that goes unnoticed by those who look to the future exclusively in terms of trade today: Ecuador possesses incalculable wealth in its genetic diversity, as a function of global food security policies and in terms of the existence of indigenous Andean cultures that have persisted through intense resistance throughout history. That wealth is also threatened.

It is worth asking if the FTA ''exists for the sake of existing,'' as the word goes in some official circles. Especially since the ninth round of negotiations in Lima, on Apr. 19, in which the United States did not alter its demands for ''preferential treatment'' for its products.

By July, the meetings between the Andean countries and the United States should come to a conclusion, but the political events -- particularly in Ecuador, where on Apr. 20 president Lucio Gutiérrez was forced from office -- are not favorable.

Unlike Colombia, where the alliance with the United States is in its glory days, in Ecuador political discord could end up burying the FTA talks in addition to the national government.

In a pre-electoral year, like 2005, the free trade agreement could be shelved by the negotiators, three of whom have already resigned in protest of Gutiérrez's dictatorial outbursts.

But resistance to signing the FTA could come from the U.S. Congress itself, with the argument that Ecuador has not resolved disputes with several multinational corporations, which, in addition to serving as a pretext, is an announcement of what could be living the blackmail of ''free'' trade.

* Javier Ponce is an Ecuadorian writer and columnist, and coordinator of the Ecumenical Committee of Projects, based in Quito.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved



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